Opinion
School Choice & Charters Commentary

Why Not Religious Charter Schools?

By Chester E. Finn Jr. — December 10, 2003 5 min read

The tragedy of urban education is the dearth of effective schools for poor kids. That acute shortage belies the right nominally conferred by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, namely that parents can move their children from failing public schools to better ones. Many communities have nowhere near enough capacity in well-functioning schools to provide an education haven for those thousands of youngsters. (In cities like New York and Chicago, we’re talking hundreds of thousands.)

Federal law also says such kids may go to charter schools, but there aren’t enough of them, either, at least not the highly effective kind.

Let religious schools become part of the charter system.

How to get more? Take advantage of the charter option and become more creative and open- minded. Many cities with weak public schools have strong churches and faith- based organizations. And one thing that many parents crave for their children is a school that not only teaches the 3 R’s, not only keeps Tony and Tanika safe, not only gives them a teacher who knows their names and cares if they’re learning—but that also supplies them with values, morals, a code of behavior, and a sturdy faith in God.

Yet the No Child Left Behind legislation doesn’t include the right to go to private schools, where such things are routine. Paul G. Vallas, the chief executive officer of the Philadelphia school system, is seeking a way around that restriction, hoping to send disadvantaged youngsters from troubled public schools into archdiocesan classrooms that have space and are willing. But, like vouchers, this is an uphill political battle. And even with voucher aid, many children who would benefit from the curricular and moral offerings of private schools cannot afford to matriculate. But faith-based organizations seeking to operate zero-tuition charter schools have, until now, been compelled to exclude all forms of religiosity—thus quashing one of their major incentives to serve children and barring one of the things they do best.

Solution: Let religious schools become part of the charter system so long as they’re willing to abide by the results-based accountability arrangements that other charter schools must accept, namely state academic standards and tests. And allow churches to found new charter schools without shedding their sectarianism.

In most countries, this wouldn’t qualify as an innovation, for they assume that government has an obligation to support church-affiliated as well as secular schools. In the United States, however, a daft reading of the First Amendment’s “establishment” clause was long held to bar public aid to religious schools.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2002 Zelman decision changed this. It said there’s no federal prohibition on state dollars going to such schools so long as this results from free and open choices by parents. It thus legalized voucher programs in several states and others struggling to be born, including the new one in Colorado and the District of Columbia plan now pending in Congress.

But vouchers aren’t the only education innovation that Zelman makes possible. Charter schools, too, get public dollars only when parents freely choose them. No child is compelled to attend a charter school. If parents don’t select it, it has neither pupils nor revenue.

Yes, charter schools must be “sponsored” by state-approved agencies, and some will see excessive “entanglement.” But private schools also need state licenses and, under the pending District of Columbia voucher program, must accept other constraints devised by Congress. Doing so will not, however, erase their religious character.

In most countries, this wouldn't qualify as an innovation, for they assume that government has an obligation to support church-affiliated as well as secular schools.

True, other differences remain between private and charter schools. Wholly private schools can restrict attendance to members of their faith and expel youngsters who refuse to behave. They can operate separate programs for girls and boys and need not comply with Uncle Sam’s myriad rules for educating children with disabilities.

Because they value such freedoms, many private schools will shun greater involvement with government. So be it. But some would welcome the opportunity to serve more children. In most places, per-pupil funding for charters, meager as it is, exceeds current tuition levels—and is more than vouchers would bring. In any case, the entanglements that accompany charter school status are not much worse— as is becoming clear in Florida, where new rules are raining down upon private schools that take part in that state’s several voucher programs. It’s a calculation each school can make for itself.

A few private schools have converted to charter status, but they did so by severing all religious ties. A few others have created sister schools that operate as charters. I visited an interesting pair of schools in Houston, one private (and religious), the other charter (and secular), sharing facilities but functioning as separate organizations.

Creating a secular sister school is one viable model for a parochial school or church that wants to serve more kids. It may be the only option in states with “Blaine amendments” that prohibit public dollars from flowing into religious institutions no matter what the Supreme Court says about the U.S. Constitution. But in the dozen or so states without such impediments, why not try religious charter schools?

Watchdog groups will rush back to court at the first sign of a new breach in their cherished “wall of separation,” and in time this education innovation would also wind up in the Supreme Court. But that’s no reason to forgo it. Cash-strapped states may fear the budgetary impact of private school pupils suddenly qualifying for public subsidies. Yet that cost can also be contained. Since many state charter laws bar private school conversions, most religious charters would be new schools, serving kids not already in the private school orbit—and adding to the supply of seats in decent schools for youngsters who need them.

Overriding all objections is America’s woeful lack of such seats. Every possible asset should be brought to bear on the creation of more. Religious charter schools deserve consideration.

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