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.
Please email us to report offensive comments.
Posted by: JQAsecstate | September 10, 2007 10:03 AM
Posted by: Stop the insanity | September 10, 2007 10:58 AM
Posted by: Anonymous | September 10, 2007 11:36 AM
Posted by: Anonymous | September 10, 2007 11:39 AM
Posted by: Happening everywhere | September 10, 2007 12:31 PM
Posted by: Ryan | September 10, 2007 12:45 PM
Posted by: OKNOW101 | September 10, 2007 1:51 PM
Posted by: mrm0to | September 10, 2007 2:51 PM
Posted by: Dominic | September 11, 2007 11:12 AM
Posted by: James | September 11, 2007 11:28 AM
Posted by: Debbie | September 11, 2007 12:16 PM
The comments to this entry are closed.