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School Choice & Charters Opinion

The Intriguing Possibilities of Catholic School Reform

By Rick Hess — October 12, 2016 3 min read
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While in Milwaukee last week, I had the chance to spend some time visiting with the leadership team for Seton Catholic Schools, a network of about two dozen elementary schools enrolling about 8,300 students. As a Jewish kid who always attended (and taught in) traditional public schools, I always find parochial schools innately interesting. What they’re doing at Seton is doubly so.

In recent decades, Catholic education has confronted a bunch of challenges. A half-century ago, the parochial staffing model relied heavily on nuns—which served to make staffing a no-brainer and to keep costs way down. Because those nuns are no longer there in significant numbers, staffing parochial schools is now a lot more expensive and difficult than it used to be. Charter schools offer a tuition-free alternative for lots of urban families that might have once considered parochial schools. Meanwhile, parochial schooling also has to deal with the same hidebound routines, dated facilities, and ineffective practices that hinder so many urban public schools.

Dealing with all of this can be pretty intimidating, especially for Catholic school leaders who are supposed to negotiate these challenges on their own—while dealing with change-resistant alums and communities. What Seton is trying to do via its network is offer those isolated schools a path forward. At participating schools, Seton is helping them rethink school leadership, providing coaching, supplying regular assessment, offering back-office services, tackling challenges like recruiting and technology, and seeking ways to energize these schools’ faith-based mission.
On the one hand, none of this is surprising. What Seton is seeking to do isn’t much different from what a well-run district or a charter management organization does. The difference is really more with the kinds of schools Seton is supporting, and the particular possibilities that they offer. On the other hand, those possibilities mean that Seton yields some really intriguing opportunities that aren’t available to even the most dynamic public educators.

What do I have in mind? There are many things I could mention; I’ll name three.

One is the chance to woo current and potential educators seeking a faith-based community that public schools can’t provide. Private schools have the freedom to ignore teacher credentials, meaning they can permit aspiring teachers to skip certification programs that can be costly and unhelpful. For teachers tired of schools obsessed with state testing requirements and whipsawed by policy directives governing everything from discipline to teacher evaluation, private schools can offer a respite and the chance to craft measures tailored to their realities and needs.

A second is that these schools have more formal freedom than public schools to reimagine schooling. (I’m talking formal impediments; when it comes to the informal and cultural stuff, private schools are frequently pretty stymied in their own right.) They don’t have to worry about state hiring directives or procurement protocols, staffing mandates, or federal “time and effort” reporting requirements. Private schools have enormous freedom to rethink how they configure the school year, group students, utilize staff, compensate teachers, or leverage technology.

A third is that religious schools are free to take their faith seriously. (Wacky, I know.) They allow educators and communities to embrace a vision of schooling that stretches far beyond “college and career readiness.” Whereas educators in public schools are asked to teach character, perseverance, empathy, and tolerance while carefully steering clear of any faith-based underpinnings that have historically justified them, religious schools are free to teach morality unapologetically.

Meanwhile, for those who tend to agree with Immanuel Kant that social and emotional learning are best when based on abstractions and not bound up with the vagaries of faith, there are public district and charter schools. That’s one of the things I love about America’s decentralized, eclectic system of schooling. As much as it frustrates those enthralled by grand visions and eager to impose “system solutions,” it provides a rich array of schools and systems from which families can choose. In a nation with more than 50 million kids in school, each with their own strengths and needs, that seems like a pretty fortuitous thing.

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