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What Makes A Catholic School Catholic?

As the curtain fell on another school year and the children, beaming in neat white-and-blue uniforms, waited to receive their awards, the pastor led everyone in calling upon the Lord. "I want you to keep praying for the charter board to make the right decision on Monday," Monsignor Charles Pope said in the cafeteria of Holy Comforter-Saint Cyprian School. "Change can be difficult, but we'll see that God can do wonderful things in ways that we don't expect."

The pastor was praying, improbably, for the D.C. charter school board to turn this Catholic school near RFK Stadium into a secular, public institution. He was praying for a change so dramatic that, come September, Pope says it would be inappropriate for him to set foot in the building, a school his church has run for 116 years.

Holy Comforter is one of seven D.C. Catholic schools that closed last week for the last time. Whether they reopen in the fall as public charter schools is up to the charter board. Approval is expected -- the board is ever-eager for more charter schools -- but D.C. politicians are grumbling about having to cough up the millions of unbudgeted dollars it would take to run those schools.

But beyond the decade-old debate over whether charters are undermining the regular public schools or liberating parents to escape from that failed system, the collapse of the inner-city Catholic schools raises another tough question: What makes a Catholic school Catholic? Come fall, will these Catholic schools, scrubbed of prayer and overt symbols of faith, still be a place apart?

No more will students (77 percent of whom are not Catholic) attend Mass each week or pray each morning. No more will they study religion three or four times a week. The curriculum is being rewritten to remove the myriad ways in which Catholic schools weave the lessons of the faith into everything from biology to literature. In matters of discipline -- a hallmark of Catholic education -- "we would no longer be able to appeal to 'what would Jesus do' or 'God is watching,' " Pope says.

Still, Holy Comforter and the other Catholic schools planning to convert to charters are confidently promoting a values-oriented education, a Catholic school experience without the Catholic part. "We could have sold the building for condos," Pope says, "but we had a passion to keep it as a school. Even if we can't celebrate Jesus Christ, the virtues of goodness, truth and beauty are found outside the confines of the Catholic faith or even Christianity."

Holy Comforter's principal, Christian White, intends to stay on, as do most of the teachers and students.

"I shed my tears," says White, 35, who has spent his entire career in Catholic schools, "but upon reflection, I can still love the children in a Christlike way and not talk about it."

Driving this unusual transformation is a typically Washingtonian struggle over money and power. The Archdiocese of Washington's inner-city elementary schools were losing more than $7 million a year. After many years of bailouts and subsidies, the church decided it had to set priorities and shift some spending to suburbs where the Catholic population is surging.

In a charter school, the taxpayers pay the freight. But the Ward 6 D.C. Council member, Tommy Wells, wonders whether taxpayers should pay for a school in which the faculty was originally hired without the rules that govern a public institution. "In a public school," he says, "you can't ask a job applicant, 'Are you gay?' 'Do you believe in abortion?' 'Are you Muslim or Christian?' Just removing the crosses and changing the curriculum isn't making it a public school."

Only a quarter of the teachers at Holy Comforter are Catholic, White says. And what parents and students care about is whether the teachers are committed, effective and loving, not what faith or political views they hold, he adds.

Still, Wells and other D.C. politicians are bucking against the enormous growth of the charters, which now get more than $350 million a year from the city and attract about 22,000 students to the regular public system's nearly 50,000.

But charters have so much independence that D.C. pols can do little but squawk and whine. The real confrontation is coming on vouchers, another experiment the feds foisted on the District. The decline of the Catholic schools is the No. 2 reason it's time to correct the vouchers mistake. (No. 1: Vouchers are a cynical backdoor way to use public money to support religious schools.)

Vouchers -- the 1,900 federally funded scholarships of about $7,500 each that go to low-income D.C. residents to be used at private schools -- are used overwhelmingly at Catholic schools. Even with public dollars, these Catholic schools couldn't make it. As students move from Catholic schools to charters, they no longer need vouchers. White says most voucher recipients at Holy Comforter -- more than half the students get the federal support -- are staying at the charter school and will give up their vouchers.

If Holy Comforter, renamed Center City Charter, maintains its standards as a secular school, it deserves the same public support provided to any charter. Will something essential to the character of a Catholic school be missing? Perhaps. But the church's decision to close seven schools provides an unintentional public service: It reveals the real purpose -- and the failure -- of vouchers.

By Marc Fisher |  June 15, 2008; 8:23 AM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

first obsession with trinidad and why residents should be slaves to drug gangs rather than get the police protection the working class pays taxes for.

then his Hillmead fiasco, which seriously, the less said about is better...

Now obsessions over what it means to be Catholic?

Marc... what websites have you been visiting? What organizations are meeting in the basement of someone's house at night? Your choice of material- pointing fingers at other people's cultures- are creeping me out big time.

If you go after one of those suburban Mosques next or illegal immigration then it's clear you're into some mighty weird conspiracy literature.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 15, 2008 11:22 AM

I'm from Cleveland, where vouchers for Catholic education took root, and where a friend is a guidance counselor for inner city Catholic grade schools. Vouchers keep those schools open by bringing in students who aren't Catholic, as the immigrant Catholics who built those parishes - and their exquisite churches - left for the suburbs forty years ago. Even my friend the guidance counselor is Jewish, and neither are the mostly African-American students.

I have plenty of concerns about support for public schools, but I can see why parents appreciate Catholic education, especially in chaotic neighborhoods. Academically, Catholic schools vary, but expectations for student behavior seem consistent. My all girls high school (recently closed after 80+ years) drew from working class neighborhoods, and some of the girls were pretty tough. But no one would have vandalized the school, or even thrown paper on the floor. It wasn't out of fear - this was long after nuns were hitting kids with rulers - it was just an expectation. And the little things, like scrubbing your desk or your locker on the last day of school, made you were responsible for the school's upkeep. I wish that more schools and parents would emphasize the responsibility that children have to their schools and their community.

I congratulate the school leadership and the diocese for not selling the building. The money would have been helpful for other parts of the program, but the city would have lost a school. And if there's something the District doesn't need, it's more condos. I know that change will be hard for the faculty, staff and students, particularly the ones who love the faith side of the education, as I did. But the values of hard work, service, and charity will go on.

This article makes me think about the Pope's visit and complaints about Catholic higher ed. My own college, John Carroll University, pushed the boundaries of what is "Catholic" teaching, including Freud and non-biblical religions in the Religious Studies program. (Been thinking about JCU this weekend as it was Tim Russert's alma mater.) While I'm no longer a practicing Catholic, I still hold dear the values from that experience.

Posted by: Tracy | June 15, 2008 12:12 PM

Girls in short uniform skirts and white blouses are what makes a Catholic school Catholic. Come on every horny Cathloic boy who ever spent anytime in Catholic confinement knows this.

What would a punk with th e last name of Fisher know about Catholic schools!

Posted by: Anonymous | June 15, 2008 6:08 PM

Vouchers are nothing more or less than the K-12 equivilant of the Pell grants provided to college students. No one argues against Pell grants because very few colleges have unionized faculty. Marc, WaPo, Democrats and the NEA oppose vouchers because they are afraid of the competion from non-unionized schools. Government funding of religious education is a complete red herring and they know it. Do any of them advocate prohibiting the use of Pell grants at Georgetown, Catholic, BYU, Notre Dame or even university level seminaries? Why then do they object to using K-12 vouchers at religious schools? I guarentee that if these schools agreed to unionize or at least make large regular payments to the NEA so they can continue to support their overpaid and overbloated payroll, the opposition to vouchers would disapear in 24 hours.

Posted by: Woodbridge Va | June 15, 2008 8:16 PM

Fisher is such a di*khead and a**hole. He can't write a grammatically correct sentence either.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 15, 2008 9:19 PM

Marc, with sweeping and ill informed statements such as the following, "The curriculum is being rewritten to remove the myriad ways in which Catholic schools weave the lessons of the faith into everything from biology to literature," it's obvious you know nothing, zero, zilch, nada, about Catholic schools and the education within those schools. As someone who attended Catholic schools growing up in the DC area (including St. John's in NW) I can tell you the quality of education I received was excellent but never did it come close to what you describe. The lessons of faith, I'm not Catholic by the way, were never woven into everything from biology to literature. The lessons of faith were taught in Religion class. And instruction is not limited to the Catholic faith as all faiths were covered in Religion class. Your statement is absurd and not supported by the facts. But you've never let facts get in the way of your shoddy reporting.

Posted by: Please take the next buyout offer! | June 16, 2008 12:26 PM

But isn't a big difference between the students being on vouchers and them going to a charter school the source of funding? If they attend the Holy Comforter on a voucher, it was paid for from Federal funds specially set aside for vouchers. If they attend the same school as a charter, the full freight is paid by the District.

Marc you're clearly against vouchers on ideological grounds, but on economic grounds it seems that the city is better off with those 7,500 kids taking the vouchers rather than attending charter schools.

Posted by: Reid | June 16, 2008 9:33 PM

Adherence to Catholic principals and dogma make a genuine Catholic school whose duty is formation of orthodox Catholic children. Thus, any school under the influence of Jesuits or the Vatican Two Church probably doesn't fit the bill, including Georgetown University or DeMatha High School.

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Posted by: Nancy Barness | June 23, 2008 9:04 PM

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