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From Catholic Schools to Charters: What's Left?

The bottom line is clear, says Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl: The Catholic Church can no longer afford to run a full complement of inner-city parochial schools serving a population that is, by an overwhelming majority, non-Catholic.

So, facing a deficit of about $50 million over the next five years, the church is moving to convert at least seven D.C. elementary schools into secular, taxpayer-funded charter schools.

"We simply don't have the resources to keep all those schools open," Wuerl said in an interview with Washington Post reporters and editors the other day. "We have exhausted the resources available to us."

But as the parochial schools move through the charter approval process, the question is what would those schools be if they emerge as publicly-supported, non-religious institutions? Catholic schools, even when they are educating a population that is 76 percent non-Catholic and almost entirely black and Hispanic, as in the Archdiocese's D.C. schools, "provide a faith-based formation," Wuerl says. "These schools give kids a self-confidence, a hope."

Take away the religious foundation and what remains? You'd have "the same teachers, the same kids, the same environment," the archbishop says. "There will still be a level of value formation."

But pressed further, Wuerl concedes that the former Catholic schools that could become charters as soon as this fall--despite opposition by some parents--will be very different:

"These schools will not have the same strength as they would as a Catholic school," he says in response to a question. "When based on a faith conviction, you can accomplish so much more than you can in a system that excludes the relationship with God."

Ironically, as the church seeks to lure back lapsed Catholics and deepen the spiritual content of an institution that Wuerl says got away from its roots in recent decades, the schools stand as one of the most important tools available for investing a new generation with a deep attachment to the faith. "They're the heart and soul of the future," Wuerl says.

But the bottom line is the bottom line, and he figures charters are the best the church can do right now: "If the alternative is a failing public school, then isn't the charter school the better" choice, he asks.

Perhaps so, but any institution that chooses to save money by chipping away at its appeal to the next generation is buying a big box of trouble. In the end, the church is following its members, naturally focusing its educational work on places where there are more Catholics. Sadly, that entails pulling back on a grand urban tradition of educating inner city children, regardless of their denomination.

To talk about this and any other topic in the news, please join me today at noon for a special edition of our Potomac Confidential discussion at . The show returns to its regular Thursday noon time slot next week.

By Marc Fisher |  April 2, 2008; 8:27 AM ET
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Unfortunately, economics is part of the equation. Years ago, when there were more nuns and brothers, it was relatively inexpensive to staff a school. The increased, and often now exclusive, reliance on lay teachers and the aging population of religious makes the running of parochial schools an expensive proposition, typically exceeding the rest of the parish budget. As inner-city congregations continue to dwindle, the supporting parishes of these schools find it harder to support their other missions. As a product of Catholic education, I mourn the demise of these schools as Church-affiliated institutions, but I also recognize that the bloodletting of parish budgets has to stop eventually.

Posted by: Chuck | April 2, 2008 9:55 AM

What I find frustrating is that these parents dedicated to good schools could be putting their efforts into public schools, but don't and the public schools wither for 30 years until the state they're at now.

My PTA Buddy who has been a part of the most successful initiatives we completed this year is pulling his kid because he'd rather pay someone else than volunteer anymore. It's just sad and this conversion is really sad too.

Posted by: DCer | April 2, 2008 10:07 AM

You wrote; "The Catholic Church can no longer afford to run a full complement of inner-city parochial schools serving a population that is, by an overwhelming majority, non-Catholic."

Did the Archbishop really say this last part? I would find that rather surprising and very disappointing. One of his predecessors, James Cardinal Hickey, is often quoted as saying, "We don't educate these children because they are Catholic. We educate them because we are Catholic."

Posted by: Tony | April 2, 2008 10:18 AM

This to me is sad. My son attended Catholic school for at 3 years. I moved him to a charter school and it wa the biggest mistake I ever made. Most of the teachers and administrators are abusive, not just to my son but to other students as well. Many parents withdraw their child from charter schools within the first 2 months due to the abuse. Catholic school parent be very assertive about your expectations. The charter school system is very, very political and business driven. The city council and the mayor are aware of the abuses within charter schools. To all parents, please, please do your research.

Posted by: Keon | April 2, 2008 10:52 AM

Oh well, Tony. Looks like the free lunch is over.

Guess you have to pay your own way now.

Posted by: DC Voter | April 2, 2008 10:52 AM

Catholic schools were initially set up because decades ago Catholics were excluded from attending good public schools. So parishes set up their own schools run by nuns, brothers, and priests to educate the children of their parishoners.

The days of religous discrimination in the public school systems are thankfully gone. The Catholic schools are now forced to change with the changes within the church and the communities they serve. It's a shame but it's also the reality of the situation.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 2, 2008 11:24 AM

DC Voter -

What is this free lunch I'm getting?

Posted by: Tony | April 2, 2008 11:37 AM

It seems like the best choice to me.
If they just close then they'll leave all those children without a school, and teachers without jobs.

As a supporter of public schools I think it would be ideal to funnel them back to DC public schools, but I suspect that would be more disruptive to all.

This way the community is left intact. Most of the children weren't catholic anyway they were there more as an alternative to DC public schools than as catholics.

Posted by: RoseG | April 2, 2008 11:42 AM

Archbishop: "The Catholic Church can no longer afford to run a full complement of inner-city parochial schools serving a population that is, by an overwhelming majority, non-Catholic."

Reworded: "The Church can no longer afford to run a full complement of inner-city parishes serving a population that is, by an overwhelming majority, non-Catholic."

I apologize, but I simply cannot believe my eyes. How long does the Archbishop need to clean the manure stains from his vestments?

Posted by: SWDCGuy | April 2, 2008 1:27 PM

As a confirmed Vatican Two liberal Catholic, Donald Wuehl is part of the Catholic problem. Who would want to go to Catholic schools that water down its Catholicism? Most, if not all, Catholic schools in the Washington diocese are Catholic in name only. For that matter, Georgetown University is too.

Part of the answer for Catholics is the highly popular Latin Mass held at St. Mary's in Chinatown.

Posted by: D Leaberry | April 2, 2008 1:41 PM

Chuck is correct in his comments. I, too, am a product of Catholic education, when nuns stressed learning, civics, grammar, etc. It is distressing to hear younger people who cannot even speak proper English, and I am not talking about immigrants. It is appalling to listen to Jay Leno's talk to people who cannot give correct answers to 98% of his questions, and to hear them laugh it off as if it did not matter.

Posted by: Dolores | April 2, 2008 2:34 PM

I don't understand the complaints here. If the church can't afford to keep all these schools open, isn't it better for it to maintain the ones it can, thereby ensuring that at least those schools succeed. Plus, I am not convinced that just because the charter schools will be different necessarily makes them bad. If folks want the Catholic archdiocese to maintain these schools, then they need to do more than grip: donate the money necessary to keep them open.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 2, 2008 2:48 PM

The real ?uestion is are they worth it? That's the bottom line. i think many families are coming back and saying no. not just in these "inner city" neighborhoods, but nationally.

I went to catholic schools in the 70s and 80s. My parents sent us more so for the solid environment and the alleged quality education. when I went to college i found my education was not special by any measure and many kids from public schools across this nation, DCPS included, received educations on par and in many cases better. I was not a slouch in HS either. I was an honor roll student that took about 50% honors classes.

What I think the Catholic schools are facing are 2nd generations not putting their kids in their schools. That's really an issue of no return customers, i.e. quality. I am convinced I can guide my children and get a solid education in public schools. Public schools offer more resources and program alternatives. Additionally, unlike my parents I have a better sense of what my kids should be learning.

Posted by: RobGreg | April 2, 2008 3:34 PM

O'Connell wasn't any better than McLean High. I went to both. The real strength in my Catholic school education was Sister Lawrence's seventh grade English grammar class at St. Johns. It was drill, drill, drill. She hated us and we hated her, but gol'darn, we learned our parts of speech.

Posted by: Cordy | April 2, 2008 4:16 PM

The shortcoming of Mr. Fisher's article is its starting point. Whether you like the Catholic church or not, or feel Catholic schools are not "Catholic enough," for generations now, Catholic schools have filled a void created by the ongoing neglect of the DC government (present administration included) that has been tolerated by DC taxpayers, including stylish, socially conscious taxpayers like Mr. Fisher who decry the public school situation while sending their children to private schools. Instead of applauding the roll that the Archdiocese has played in functioning as the City's educational safety net and acknowledging the financial conundrum the Archdiocese confronts, in tone and approach, the article suggests that the Archdiocese is abandoning an obligation and somehow at fault for succumbing to the crushing economic weight of sustaining an educational system that overwhelmingly serves a population that would not be enrolled in its schools if that population had not been abandoned by its local government. (Mr. Fisher's gratuitous swipe at failing lapsed Catholics notwithstanding, there is no evidence to suggest that any percentage of the 76% of non-Catholics attending parochial schools in the District identify themselves in any way as having fallen away from the Church. Surely Mr. Fisher is not suggesting that the Archdiocese maintained schools, and should continue to do so, in the hope of promoting converts?) It is regrettable for the children of this City who have been the beneficiaries of Catholic educational charity, that economics are forcing the Archdiocese to pull back from the role it has generously played for over thirty years in this city as educator of last resort. Rather than throw stones, the community would be better served if commentators like Mr. Fisher raised their voices and noted that filling the educational void created by government neglect is not the province of Catholics alone and called on the other churches, synagogues and mosques located in this city to step-up and do their share to raise the $50 million necessary to partner with the Archdiocese to maintain these value-oriented schools rather than allow them to fall into the inept (and corrupt) hands of the DC public school system.

Posted by: DC Lifer | April 2, 2008 5:16 PM

As a parent of of achild in one of the transforming catholic schools, I am both frustrated by the archdiocease decision and hopeful for the future charter schools.

I understand the basic econonomics of the situation. There are fewer nuns to teach and fewer parent parishioners to support these closing parish schools. In my school of ~200 there were less than 20 families from the parish sending their kids to the school. Cost is one of the main reasons.

The sad reality is that with regards to schools (and parish facilities)the diocease fuctions not as a community/family of belivers but separate entities looking after there own corporate interests. Its odd that one parish has new facilites and vast resources while another has crumbling buildings and little if any diocesan support. The bishop says "When based on a faith conviction, you can accomplish so much more than you can in a system that excludes the relationship with God." Really, he and wealthy parishes are saying - If you have the money you can get a catholic education, if not to bad for you. Its almost laughable to call this Balkanized approach christian.

Does the diocease owe anyone a catholic education? No. But if they (parishioners throughout the dioscease) are going to have schools we should pool our resources to make it possible for all interested catholic families.

On a lighter note. I am hopeful for the charter schools and intend to give it at least one year. At my school, most of the teachers and the principal are staying. Also, the curriculum and most of the initial students will be the same. Also, I agree that this is (far) better than nothing.

Posted by: LeeinDC | April 2, 2008 6:11 PM

As a survivor of 12 years of Catholic school, I can only cheer that fewer kids will be subjected to religious brainwashing. It's a shame all the Catholic schools can't shut down.

Posted by: gayarlington | April 2, 2008 7:08 PM

We might ask why there are no longer nuns and brothers to teach and to run the schools. The answer to that question might shed a whole lot of light on the situation.

Posted by: Torquemama | April 3, 2008 7:27 AM

The closing of these schools only points out the need for full tuition vouchers for all students.

There is no reason why parents should not be able to choose the education that best fits their children's needs as opposed to being forced to have their children warehoused wherever the teacher's union bosses choose.

Posted by: Byron | April 3, 2008 7:39 AM

someone said, "The days of religous discrimination in the public school systems are thankfully gone."

WHAT??? did you miss the recent lawsuits that have been filed because of religious discrimination? You don't have to look very far to find it. Unless of course, you don't think Christian discrimination counts.

Posted by: missy | April 3, 2008 8:39 AM

I went to Catholic schools for twelve years and loved every minute of it. I can only thank God to this day for the dedication of my parents, and the selfless love of the nuns, priests and laypeople who gave us great educations. Even though no Catholic educators got paid (or get paid) as much as American public school teachers, the best paid in the world, they did and do a far superior job, with fewer resources. The Catholic system may shrink as secularized and materialistic Catholics of the current generation place less value on what they provide, but some of them will always be around, and all of America should be grateful to them for the wonderful alternative they provide, and the check they provide against the hubris of our state-controlled educational system.

Posted by: david murphy | April 3, 2008 12:32 PM

It seems that the Archdiocese of Washington is doing some financial housecleaning that has been ignored for quite some time. It is a shame for the students at these schools but it could have been worse.

The diocese should pay closer attention to the finances of the schools still functioning to ensure they don't meet a similar fate. Someone did not balance their checkbook and these closing schools are the result of that.

Some Catholic schools in Baltimore faced closings due to low enrollment and pooled their resources. My alma mater is a good example Archbishop Keough High school and Seton High school came together as Seton Keough. This school is still running strong today despite the smaller nun and priest educators. Why can't this diocese do something similar for their schools?

I have had 12 years of Catholic Education and was sent to a public school for half of the day. My education was made that unique due to being a special needs student who attended a Catholic elementary school with no services available. I honestly feel like the Catholic education I received was superior to the public one in every way. The teachers were able to follow through on their discipline which made a big difference. The math programs in Catholic schools need some serious revamping though.

In response to Robgreg's comment "That's really an issue of no return customers, i.e. quality." This is a good point also children who had the more tramatic Catholic educations with the corporal punishment might not want to impose that on there children. But I think the major reason for the decline of Catholic enrollment in schools is due to Catholic families moving away from cities.

Also since Vatican II the approach to teaching Catholicism has changed a great deal with less emphasis on the saints/church attendance and more on the acts. The lack community groups to promote involvement for the 20-30 population also might make parents less likely to choose a Catholic school for their children.

Posted by: Miss Tegan | April 6, 2008 5:21 PM

WHAT??? did you miss the recent lawsuits that have been filed because of religious discrimination? You don't have to look very far to find it. Unless of course, you don't think Christian discrimination counts.

yawn, even you couldn't find a link to post, how could we?

Posted by: Anonymous | April 7, 2008 9:18 PM

Imagine if the DC government would give those kids vouchers to save those schools?

Posted by: Anonymous | April 7, 2008 11:16 PM

VOUCHERS! Vouchers now.

I am the product of 13 years of Catholic education (and 5 years as an Altar boy. For those of you with the "National Enquirer" type mind ..... sorry to disappoint ..... there was not even remotely a hint of sexual impropriety).

With the exception of two wonderful parents, Catholic education *WAS THE BEST THING* that ever happened to me.

God bless the Priests, Brothers and Nuns who, in no small measure, greatly contributed to the success I am today.

Posted by: Dave | April 8, 2008 8:18 AM

Are the DC Catholic schools free to students? In my home state, my parents paid exorbitant tuition (plus required parental "volunteering") so that I could attend 11 years of Catholic school. Collecting/increasing tuition is not a positive development for the community, but I'm surprised it isn't discussed here at all.

I agree with RobGreg, though: my "college prep" Catholic school education was in many cases weaker than that received by college classmates with better public school systems. While we had some excellent lay teachers, many of the classes were run by people hired more for their affiliation with the church than for their education or teaching credentials. As non-Catholic Christians my parents would have taken a charter school option if one existed, but it did not and the public schools lacked sufficient desks and books for all students.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 8, 2008 8:22 AM

Why is there a small handful of numbskulls in here actually commenting on the fact that the Catholic schools aren't noticeably better than comparable schools in the FCPS system??

That may be the case, but DC public schools literally rank 51 out of all 50 states, which is obviously as bad as it sounds. ANYTHING would be better than that, including and especially Catholic schools. As a product of the FCPS school system, I can say I had no need for the Catholic school education since the schools were so good in the public system, but I've no reason to sneeze at the idea of them helping a great deal of children in a very disadvantaged city.

Posted by: Comunista | April 8, 2008 8:38 AM

Sorry, but the Washington Archdiocese doesn't have an infinite amount of money to keep all boats afloat. If all you do-gooders have the means, then pony up the dough every year. The root financial problem is not going away...

Posted by: JT | April 8, 2008 8:54 AM

Catholic schools all over the area are not receiving nearly enough support from their parishoners. Call it like you see it. This is happening even in MoCo, one of the wealthiest counties in the country. Churches have BMWs and expensive SUVs in the parking lots, but are begging for donations. Priests walk a delicate line between acting as apologists for their congregations' materialism, and risking alienating even more people seduced by STUFF.

Posted by: bkp | April 8, 2008 10:50 AM

"In the end, the church is following its members, naturally focusing its educational work on places where there are more Catholics. Sadly, that entails pulling back on a grand urban tradition of educating inner city children, regardless of their denomination." This is a horribly ignorant statement. What Mr. Fisher does not understand is the Church's primary role is to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ not act as a social services organization. Granted the Church's role in the administration of education and various charities is important -- its primary mission is to win souls for Christ. When schools become a majority non-Catholic, there are those who agitate for a watering down of the unique Catholic identity of the school. Such is the case with many Catholic universities. Non-Catholics do not have a right to a Catholic education, and I think the Church is better served putting those resources that most effectively serve the CATHOLIC community.

Posted by: TipoftheSpear | April 8, 2008 11:42 AM

I had taught in a number ofs Catholic schools for 15 years. EVERY time we received a transfer student from the public school system, that student was always below par compared to our students on the same grade level.
Unfortunately, in the past, religious sisters and brothers were taken for granted re their contributions to the Catholic school system. These dedicated individuals sacrificed their own lives for the good of others. They received practically no pay for their services. In essence, they were the reasons for the schools continuance. We live in a different age with new challenges. I wish Archbishop Wuerl support in his efforts to be fair to all during these challenging times. If people want Catholic schools to continue, they must meet the sacrifices necessary.

Posted by: CMG | April 8, 2008 1:15 PM

Let there be vouchers! Families should be able to take their educational money and use it where they will get the best education. The public schools will then have to improve and compete. To have these children held hostage by an inferior public school system is immoral.

Posted by: SGB | April 8, 2008 1:28 PM

At age 53 I have come to believe that all education should be private and independent of tax monies and political control. One reason is the need to maintain a higher moral level.

Nothing is "free." Tax-supported schooling comes at a high price--moral, intellectual, and social.

One of the main things inner city schools need are good men as teachers. Father deprivation has been devastating to poor (and not-so-poor) blacks. Character is more important than fancy academic credentials (I am thinking of the recent spate of school scandals involving male teachers and students of both sexes). Mental health screening should be a standard part of the teacher hiring process.

Parents who pay for schooling are more engaged, because they want to get their money's worth. Philanthropic organizations, which are increasingly involved in monitoring outcomes, can make up the difference.

Posted by: Sharon Kass | April 8, 2008 4:34 PM

"These schools give kids a self-confidence, a hope."
No. They teach shame and blind devotion.
On the other hand, their greatest benefit is that they maintain a level of discipline unrivaled by non-parochial urban schools. Which allows students to focus on education. In that respect this is a significant loss for the families affected.

Posted by: Patrick Huss | April 8, 2008 8:06 PM

Its amazing how ingnorant the Catholic haters are... its almost like they checked their brains at the door and instead drool over their keyboards with anti-religious rhetoric.

How did you become the way you are?

Posted by: Anonymous | April 8, 2008 10:47 PM

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