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 washingtonpost.com/liveonline . 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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