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Schools Monday: A Twist the Charters Movement Didn't Expect

This isn't the way the charter schools movement was supposed to turn. The idea behind charters, vouchers and the overall effort to provide public school parents with choices has been driven from the start by two different motives, one constructive and one quite insidious.

Parents and children stuck in lousy urban public schools ought to have some of the options that are available to Americans who can afford to send their kids to high-quality suburban public schools, parochial or private schools, the theory goes. Competition from good charters will force public systems to improve. That's the part of the charter movement that has won wide, bipartisan support.

Then there's the motivation that sticks in the craw even of many charter supporters--the fact that some advocates of school choice see charters and vouchers as tools for undermining the public schools and eventually causing their collapse and replacement by some privatized schooling system.

But I've never heard any school choice activists advocate or anticipate what's happening now in the D.C. Catholic school system, which, as the Post reported over the weekend, is planning to ask the D.C. government to take at least eight--and possibly as many as eleven--of its elementary schools and convert them into taxpayer-supported secular schools run as charters by organizations selected by the Catholic Church.

Washington's new Catholic leader, Archbishop Donald Wuerl, who arrived with a reputation as a cost-cutter, is taking action in the face of an enormous shortfall in the funding of the archdiocese's urban schools, declining enrollment as families choose charter schools over the parochial system, and the longstanding fact that 75 percent of the students in the city's Catholic schools are not Catholic, but rather come from Protestant black families looking for a safer, more rigorous environment for their kids.

The church's heavy subsidy for schools that serve a mostly non-Catholic student body has been a difficult issue for many years, but the financial situation has deteriorated to the point that the Archdiocese has to make cuts. Three elementary schools were closed and merged with neighboring schools at the end of this last school year.

About 1,200 of the 2,200 children in 12 inner-city Catholic elementary schools in Washington would move to taxpayer-supported secular schools under the current proposal. That should be good news for Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who speaks often of wanting to expand enrollment in the public schools, but Rhee is hoping kids will return to the regular D.C. public schools, not further expand the fast-growing ranks of publicly-supported charter schools. Rhee's predecessors have generally been wary of or hostile to charters because, while technically public schools, they drain dollars from the regular system, as money is allocated according to the number of students in each school, regular or charter.

"Seventy-nine charter schools now educate 28 percent of the city's public school students," a report from the Archdiocese notes. Rather than fight the charters, the church proposes to join them.

Charter advocates will be thrilled. The D.C. school system will probably have to swallow hard and accept the new schools, though with virtually zero enthusiasm for the idea. Oh, great, the administrators will say (at least privately)--we've got 45,000 kids rolling around in buildings designed to handle 150,000 kids, we're trying to justify holding on to ancient, decrepit properties that really ought to be sold, demolished and redeveloped to boost the city's tax base, and now here comes a whole new inventory of old buildings to worry about while the charter system gets a big, overnight boost in its student numbers, further draining our budget.

At the very least, this latest move by the Catholic schools should spell the end to the District's unfortunate voucher system, which Congress imposed on the city, using D.C. taxpayers' dollars to prop up the Catholic schools while trying to skirt the constitutional ban on government support of religious institutions. Most voucher money goes to Catholic schools, yet that system remains in deep financial stress. If the Catholic system is now looking for a city bailout, the least the city could do would be to scrap the voucher system. But don't hold your breath for that to happen, as it would require Congress to reverse itself on vouchers when the program comes up for renewal in 2009, and this Congress is no friend of the District's.

The formerly Catholic schools that would be converted to secular charter schools would likely become some of the most attractive and academically promising schools in the city--the prospect of a secular, but values-based education in schools run more or less as the Archdiocese has traditionally run their schools (but without prayer and other religious content) would lure many hundreds of families.

But that would make Rhee's biggest challenge--what to do about the enormous mismatch between her enrollment and her sprawling network of empty or woefully underused buildings--even bigger. A tough job just got a whole lot tougher.

By Marc Fisher |  September 10, 2007; 7:37 AM ET
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Wonderful analysis.

Could you determine the quantity of teachers on the Catholic schools payroll and indicate the percentage that would meet - with no additional coursework - the higher formal education certifications standards Rhee is establishing?

Posted by: JQAsecstate | September 10, 2007 10:03 AM

Let me get this straight: thousands of African-American families make the choice to send their children to expensive schools, of a religion that they don't practice just so those children get a fighting chance at a decent education, and all Mr. Fisher can do is bash them, their sacrifice, and Catholic schools generally? And one can assume that if vouchers are so terrible, you support the idea that wealthy [white] (q.v., Chelsea Clinton) get to go to Sidwell; and the poor [black] "deserve" Ballou, or Eastern?
The Rhee love-fest has officially gone too far.

Posted by: Stop the insanity | September 10, 2007 10:58 AM

I believe the above is a mistranslation of the facts and the article.

Parents and students create the schools and own the schools, the administration just rides the wave of parent's requests. All public schools are as good as the PTA makes them. That's the way it's always been for me.

If Ballou is bad, what are the students doing to fix it? What are the parents doing?

I took part in two separate school beautification volunteer events this weekend and am looking at three more in September/October such as stringing wires for the computer network, checking donated books into the library and painting the walls. Does this happen at Ballou? If not, why don't the parents do that?

I feel some frustration at my local school's administrative policies, but I know that given limitations the only people who can get the walls painted before October 1 are the parents. That's life, it's not changing, so work with it.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 10, 2007 11:36 AM

Also, I think it should be clear that we live near Maryland which has some of the largest African-American Catholic communities in the country. Seeing African-American students in Catholic schools may seem strange for New Englanders or people from the deep south, but I grew up with classmates that fit that description. There seems to be some slight tone in the article that race automatically has something to do with their religion here and that's the analysis of someone who doesn't know the region.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 10, 2007 11:39 AM

The charter school explosion is having the same effect in other parts of the country. Private religious schools are losing enrollment and closing, because parents who normally sent their kids there to get a good, safe education (not because they wanted them to have a religious education) are now pulling their kids out and sending them to charter schools for FREE. The private Christian school I attended for 6 years in Tampa, FL, which had existed since the 1950s, just sold its property to the county public school system because it could not afford to keep running at such low enrollments. The school will not become a charter school, but it will be turned into a public elementary school.

Posted by: Happening everywhere | September 10, 2007 12:31 PM

Marc, the real problem for the public school system is that private schools essentially provide a massive subsidy of the public schools. How? Families of students in the private schools still pay property taxes and whatever other taxes fund the public schools. However, their kids do not attend public schools and, therefore, do not cost the public school system any money.

1,200 new students added to the D.C. public school system with no extra money for the system. Maybe you shouldn't have been so negative on those vouchers, which, you claim, were put in place as a subsidy for Catholic schools. What are you, Marc, some kind of Know-Nothing? Prejudiced against those "papists"?

Posted by: Ryan | September 10, 2007 12:45 PM

folks have not seen anything when it comes to schools lacking until they see what these cathlic school have to offer. I still see this as a bail out.

With the comment of proposing to "join" the charter schools it appears the Archdiocese plans to be an active manager. i would venture to say the Catholic church should be made to apply for a Charter just as any and all others. i ould like to see just how exciting and dynamic a base catholic school curriculum is compared to what others are offering. i wonder how their staf compares.

Posted by: OKNOW101 | September 10, 2007 1:51 PM

"Stop the insanity" - did you read the post? The problem is going to be how an already stressed bureaucracy is going to absorb and administer 12 more schools, even if involvement is simply financial? It's a big deal, and to dump it right at the start of the school year is outrageous.

And as for private school parents subsidizing the public schools - this is balderdash. People pay taxes all the time that go to support services they may not use. I'd like to meet the private school parent that will go down to Barry Farms and tell those parents that they're unwilling to pay a few hundred dollars a year in extra property taxes so unfortunately DC will be shutting down the neighborhood schools and you'll have to find some other way to educate your kids.

Posted by: mrm0to | September 10, 2007 2:51 PM

Where does/did Marc Fisher send his own kids to school?

Posted by: Dominic | September 11, 2007 11:12 AM

Not so fast! Call Barry Lynn and the ACLU! Any attempt to convert parochial schools into public charter schools will be bogged down in 1st Amendment litigation. In fact, To the Point (KCRW) recently had a lengthy broadcast on litigation involving public charter schools in NY and FL with Arabic and Hebrew language/culture foci that are alleged to involve an impermissible establishment of religion.

Posted by: James | September 11, 2007 11:28 AM

2200 ( catholic school students) of 45000( elementary students in DCPS) children are affected by this..!!!!..the per pupil cost for each student in the Catholic system must have been thousands and thousands of dollars annually. Keeping these schools open is an irresponsible fiscally, whether the kids are Catholic or not does not matter. Catholics can choose to donate their funds in a more responsible manner to support these children rather than throw money away at a system that is too costly

Posted by: Debbie | September 11, 2007 12:16 PM

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