Politics & Policy

Save D.C.’s Catholic Schools

It's up to Congressional Dems whether these highly effective schools survive.

Hundreds of D.C. parents breathed a sigh of relief last week when a House subcommittee voted to fund the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program for another year. Authorized in 2004, the program provides vouchers that allow nearly 2,000 low-income D.C. students to attend private schools.

Yet Congressional Democrats seem ready to eliminate the $14.8 million program entirely in 2009. “This year’s bill is essentially a placeholder in this debate,” said Rep. José E. Serrano, a New York Democrat who chairs the appropriations subcommittee on financial services. “I expect that during the next year the District leaders will come forward with a firm plan for either rolling back the program, or providing some alternative options.”

The result will almost certainly sound a death knell not only for school vouchers in Washington, but also for several of the District’s inner-city Catholic schools.

#ad#Financial trouble has already forced seven of D.C.’s 27 Catholic schools to convert to secular charter schools. Last week, the D.C. Public Charter School Board unanimously approved a conversion proposal that would hand over the administration of the schools to an independent operator, which would then lease the school facilities from the Archdiocese of Washington. The seven schools will retain their buildings, as well as many teachers and students, but they must shed their Catholic identity to become eligible for public funding as non-religious charter schools.

Assuming Congress cuts off the federal voucher program a year from now, other Catholic schools in Washington may be forced to follow suit.

“Without vouchers, it would be much more challenging to keep our schools open,” says Monsignor Charles Pope, pastor of Holy Comforter–St. Cyprian Church. He should know. Holy Comforter school is one of the seven that will be converted this summer. Nearly half of its students had been awarded vouchers. Holy Comforter had been a part of a the now-defunct Center City Consortium, a partnership of 14 struggling inner-city Catholic schools on which the Archdiocese of Washington has spent some $68 million since 1997.

“We feel a great sense of loss, but we’re also being realistic,” says Msgr. Pope. “Demographics have changed — the number of school-aged children here is smaller — and it’s becoming more expensive to run the schools.”

Vouchers couldn’t sustain the seven schools in part because of the wording of the the D.C. School Choice Incentive Act. The law ordains funding for tuition, capped at $7,500, but doesn’t account for attendant school fees, which can exceed $2,000.

The real cost of a parochial education often exceeds what families pay, leaving the Archdiocese, local parishes, and private philanthropy to make up the difference. This year, the Archdiocese ran a deficit of $8 million on the Center City Consortium schools alone.

“We needed to consolidate the schools. It was an emergency situation,” says Susan Gibbs, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese.

Michael J. Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute notes that the closures are part of a broader, and troubling, trend. “Since the 1990s, 1,300 inner-city Catholic schools throughout the country have closed, displacing 300,000 kids,” he says. “The D.C. voucher program helped to stem that tide, but this is all part of a larger story.”

Some are optimistic about the prospects for inner-city education in the wake of the conversion. “This is a very positive sign of the Catholic Church maintaining its commitment to inner-city education,” says Samuel Casey Carter of the Center for Education Reform. “After working with local authorities, the Church has created the legal and the financial mechanisms to serve the same children with twice the financial resources.”

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Others say that secular charter schools, no matter how well intentioned, can’t replace the special identity of Catholic institutions. Even non-Catholic and secular observers recognize that Catholic schools’ typical focus on a core academic curriculum is particularly effective with inner-city students who haven’t received the best basic-skills instruction at home. And parochial schools’ resistance to progressive educational fads — which often put children rather than teachers in charge of the classroom — help to foster the school discipline that is essential to a productive classroom environment.

These seven new charters may well avoid the pedagogical pitfalls of other public schools: after all, the organization that will operate the schools is an offshoot of Center City Consortium.

Still, people of faith see other advantages in a fully Catholic education. “The network of families, the spiritual foundation of that community — it’s not just the cooperation, it’s living a life of faith together that sets people up to succeed,” says Father Ron Nuzzi of the Alliance for Catholic Education at Notre Dame.

#ad#Hopes are high that the attrition of schools from the D.C. parochial system has ended — but that will require Congressional action in the very near future. “I’d be very surprised if Democrats in Congress turn their backs on the inner-city poor in D.C.,” Father Nuzzi observes, “given the impact the program has made.”

But it’s a very real possibility. While the D.C. voucher program has earned the support of local leaders like Mayor Adrian Fenty and former mayors Anthony Williams and Marion Barry (now a member of the city council), Congressional Democrats remain opposed to the program. If they vote to eliminate vouchers next year, more inner-city Catholic schools may have to close their doors, regardless of archdiocesan efforts to keep them open.

Says the Fordham Foundation’s Petrilli: “Losing vouchers would be a hit for Catholic schools. And it would be bad news for everyone.”

– Elise Viebeck, a Collegiate Network intern at National Review, is an editor emerita of the Claremont Independent at Claremont McKenna College.

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