Will Charters Crowd Out Catholic Schools?

By Joseph Lawler

For generations, Catholic schools have been a key feature of the education landscape in cities across America, providing a quality alternative to public schools for millions of children. Over time, however, demographics and a changing education system have shifted the ground out from underneath Catholic schools. Hundreds of parochial schools close every year, and every Catholic school faces new and daunting financial problems.

Over recent years, another challenge has presented itself to Catholic schools: the rise of significant competition from charter schools.

Charters present parents with an alternative to Catholic education, one that doesn’t require a major financial sacrifice. As the push for charter schools gains momentum, Catholic schools have to grapple with serious competition for student who aren’t served well by the public school system.

Sean Kennedy, a fellow at the Lexington Institute, thinks that Catholic K-12 educators in New York and elsewhere should embrace the competition, and respond to it as an opportunity to modernize and improve. In a recent study for the Lexington Institute, Kennedy explains how Catholic schools can use the best ideas formulated by charters to their own advantage. Those include implementing blended learning techniques to leverage the resources provided by new technologies. Such reforms can be used to complement Catholic schools’ religious missions, Kennedy argues.

To learn more about what the future holds for Catholic schools, RealClearPolicy spoke to Kennedy about his research on the lessons charters hold for Catholic education. A lightly edited transcript of that conversation follows.

RealClearPolicy: What motivated you to look into the impact of charter schools on New York City Catholic schools?

Sean Kennedy: Fundamentally, New York is the American city. It’s the microcosm of the American experience. It’s the immigrant port of entry. It’s the place where every group comes either to make their fortune or make their way into the middle class. And so every trend and reality that has been an American reality has started or had some background in New York.

At the end of the day the archbishop, or in this case, the cardinal, of the New York diocese is always the leader in the American Catholic church. Since the American Catholic church is not a unified operation, the cardinal in New York is always the de facto leader. So whatever happens in his backyard is something that affects not only his state, but something that American Catholic should look to for support or concern.

In your paper, you try to get to the bottom of the trend of what seems to be charter schools crowding out Catholic schools in New York City.

Abe Lackman of Albany Law School did the first definitive work showing a correlation. An argument for the causality hasn’t been made. But it’s indisputable that Catholic schools are in decline and charter schools are on the rise. The relationship between the two is not necessarily direct and causal. If there is a crowding out effect, then Catholic schools have only made it worse by basically pricing out their own consumers. And now that there is a quality choice, or in some cases, quality choices, in the form of charters, it’s easier for low-income parents to choose that over a very pricey Catholic school education, which may or may not be of equal quality.

Your study is an attempt to give Catholic schools suggestions about how they can adapt to the reality of competition from charters. Can you explain how they might go about doing that?

The first thing, as with any problem, is that you have to recognize you have one. My experience working with Catholic school leaders and thinkers on education issues is that they’re split into two groups: the reform group and, for lack of a better word, the ostrich group – where they have their head in the sand and they either blame the charters, and the charters are the “bad guy stealing away our kids,” or alternatively, they say there is no problem, there’s just statistical noise and that the decline isn’t occurring.

And those two camps are really the first starting points.

Once you acknowledge that the ostrich camp is just simply wrong and needs to “come to Jesus,” for want of a better term, you can begin to talk about what the options are.

There hasn’t been a one-size-fits-all problem, but there are two fundamental problems Catholic schools face. One is academics, and the other is financial sustainability.

On the sustainability front, Catholics schools have to determine how they’re going to have a long-term sustainability plan. Now, there is plenty of philanthropy money out there, as the report makes clear. Billionaires and many Catholic philanthropists have been more than willing to give to Catholic schools, but they finally have said enough to giving to unsustainable projects – projects with no end in sight, to the red ink. Many Catholic dioceses are just that way – they simply have no plan to get back to a sustainable budget. The deficits continue to grow, the enrollment continues to decline, and the system gets worse. So one is, you have to have a plan.

One of the ideas we put forward is blended learning, which not only improves – I’ll get back to this in a second – education, it also saves money. It cuts down on staff costs, in a paradoxical way, by increasing the interactions between teachers and students by dividing the class effectively. Two, it gives every teacher twice as much time with every student because they’re only dealing with half the class at any one time.

On the academic side, Catholic schools generally lack transparency, and that’s because of the luxury of monopoly. They’ve been the only non-public school system in the United States effectively for the past 150 years until the advent of charters about two decades ago. They had a monopoly for Catholics who wanted an alternative to the traditional public school system. So they didn’t have any need to be transparent. They also had an impulse to excel. But that has somewhat dissipated over time, and costs have driven down quality for various reasons, and they now need to become transparent, as the former superintendent of the Paterson, New Jersey diocese succeeded in doing. He had the whole diocese switch over to state assessment so that in his schools parents know where their children are scoring in relation to their neighbors. Often Catholic schools don’t take the same tests that their public school and charter neighbors do. And that transparency needs to come to the fore so we know whether Catholic schools are delivering quality. And if they’re not delivering quality, we need to act on that.

What are some positive examples of such changes?

There are major moves at major archdioceses as we speak to adopt at least the inklings of reform.

But let me stop and praise what’s going on in Philadelphia. Archbishop Charles Chaput came in from Denver and had relative success in Denver doing some things, but didn’t take a radical approach for a variety of reasons. They didn’t have a demographic decline like Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, or Detroit and other larger formerly Catholic urban areas do. They’re much more middle class. Chaput came in after huge cuts – 20 percent of all Philadelphia catholic schools closed in one single year, which is just unprecedented. When the next round of closings came out with four high schools on the chopping block for the 2012-2013 school year, Chaput said no. And in February of last year, 2012, he said, “I’m going to find an alternative.”

So he decided to do something that very few people in the Church or any corporate governance structure would do – he gave up power. And he sought out the head of Cigna Insurance, and they found an organization called Faith in the Future, and they turned over not only all 17 Catholic high schools in the Philadelphia archdiocese, but also… get this, most people don’t  understand it: the Catholic schools in Philadelphia run four special education schools. The idea that a private charity, with zero state funding, would take it on itself to do special education work, which is probably some of the most frustrating, expensive, and difficult work there is, it’s amazing – and no one praises the Church for that, but at the same time if you want to continue that enterprise you need to be able to sustain your work. Those 21 schools were turned over to an organization now headed by a fellow named Casey Carter, who wrote the seminal book No Excuses in the late 1990s. Now Casey is running the Faith in the Future foundation, and they have turned a 6 million dollar deficit – archdiocese high school-wide – to a $500,000 deficit in six months. Because they finally tackled the unsustainable budget issue. In addition to that, another 16 parish elementary schools, because elementary schools and junior highs are often run directly by the churches they’re in proximity to, have fallen under something called the Independent Mission Consortium, and they’ll be run on similar parallel track to the Faith in the Future schools, and another 56 elementary schools will take advisory guidance form the Faith in the Future Foundation about how to sustain their budgets.

So there’s already huge progress, in strategic terms, in the Philadelphia archdiocese.

In terms of innovation, not just simply governance reform, the schools that we highlight in the report – the Mission Dolores Academy and St. Therese in Seattle – are doing something that only charters of today have done, which is to completely renovate the way we teach students, and to decide at the forefront that individualized instruction and differentiation is the first and primary goal of all education. The idea that a kid should be treated like a widget, given identical educations at identical times, is outmoded. And now these schools have decided to do that. In the case of Mission Dolores, which is a year ahead of St. Therese, it’s already reaped benefits, with a 16 percent jump in math scores and a 6 percent jump in reading scores in one year. So these models, both on the financial side and on the academic side, are already reaping benefits. But it’s going to take the rest of the Catholic schools in the United States to take notice before anything drastic changes.

Returning to the question of how charters are affecting Catholic schools. In some states that have implemented broad voucher programs – I’m thinking in particular of Indiana – Catholic schools have benefited from voucher programs. Is that a point for, or against, vouchers or other forms of school choice relative to charters?

I’m for all forms of choice. I think parents should have all the choice in the world. At any given point, when government is subsidizing education, the money should flow through parents who have the best interests of their child at heart. So if we’re deciding that per-child this is the payment structure, or for performance we’re paying this, parents should always have the choice. So I’m wholly supportive of vouchers.

My concern with people like Cardinal Dolan and other people in the church, they’ve hung their hat exclusively on vouchers. The political reality is that vouchers are not coming to blue states anytime soon. And more importantly, vouchers are not going to save them if they don’t save themselves first. There has to be a period of time between now and the advent of vouchers in these places that these schools need to be open for vouchers to save them. So my concern is that they’re putting all their eggs in the basket of vouchers in heavily democratic or anti-voucher states is that one, the schools may be closed before the vouchers every come to be. And more importantly, if they make no academic changes or academic improvements in the meantime to make those schools more competitive. Because at the end of the day vouchers are about choice. It’s not a direct subsidy to Catholic schools if Catholic schools are no good. Because parents aren’t going to send their kids there. So Catholic schools are in the same problem they’d be in in any other scenario.

Catholic schools still need to heal themselves before they look to anything like vouchers for salvation. Vouchers are part of the puzzle, but for Catholic schools, they’re in such desperate straits they can’t be the only solution.

With vouchers and Catholic schools, I think the most compelling argument for blue-state vouchers, is cost efficiency. If Catholic schools cost more than local public schools per pupil, or cost more than local charter schools per pupil, that is not a very good selling point to cash-strapped states like Illinois, California, and New York.

But if you on the other hand, like St. Therese, like Mission Dolores, like other Catholic schools that are proving to be efficient, if you can go to the state legislature and say, give us half –half! – of what the state pays per pupil, and we’ll educate twice as many children, with a better quality education, that is an offer that would be hard to refuse for many of these cash-strapped states.

In upstate New York, for example, where a number of the Archdiocese schools – though most people think it focuses exclusively on Manhattan, it’s actually Manhattan, the Bronx, and a number of out counties going North into the Hudson Valley, is where the Archdiocese of New York goes – a number of those counties going into the Catskills have had their property taxes go up year after year after year because their teacher pensions are going up and their tax bases are going down. So the only thing they can do is increase the overall tax rate to keep the schools going, even though there are fewer kids in the schools.

If Catholic schools could say to an area like that that we will do this for half the cost, it would be a huge selling point. There’d be a lot of pressure on states like New York or Illinois to say, “it’s this, or we’re going to cut road funding, or we’re going to raise more property taxes,” and so on and so and forth. So if Cardinal Dolan really wants vouchers, I think the most compelling case for vouchers would be to say we’re going do it better and cheaper. And that’s one thing I’d like to see in the school voucher debates from the Catholic point of view, to say, we’re going to be both more excellent and more efficient.

Joseph Lawler is editor of RealClearPolicy. He can be reached by email or on twitter.

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