Catholic Institutions: The New Charter Schools

Charter schools grew out of a reform movement in the 1970s to promote innovative ideas in education by establishing “public schools of choice” in which teachers and administrators could test out ideas to figure out what worked. They quickly evolved in many American cities to become the affordable way for working people to give their children a high quality education.

But this wasn’t the first such cheap alternative the urban working class had to public education. For 100 years before charter schools very similar people, the original immigrant and working groups in major cities, had Catholic schools. Now it appears Catholic schools are learning something important from charter schools.

From an article at Capital New York:

With Catholic schools closing across New York City and enrollment plummeting 35 percent over the last decade alone, Queen of Angels and five other Catholic schools in East Harlem and the South Bronx have banded into a “network”— another charter term—of six schools and 2,100 students to try to reverse course.

A central part of the plan to push back the decline of Catholic education is to treat the city’s successful charter school sector as a model, rather than a competitor, although charter schools have been contributing to the Catholic sector’s population drain by attracting low-income families who choose a free charter over a tuition-based parochial school.

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Yes, these schools are “branding” in the manner of the KIPP Schools. They’re trying to stick together in indiviiudal groups to show what their unique model can offer.

It’s really pretty simple. According to the piece, these six schools and their partnership pitch themselves as unique because they offer “some of the central components of Catholic schools—strict discipline, a focus on character development—with a new infusion of charter-inspired efficiency and academic rigor.

In many ways Catholic schools and charters are similar already. They tend to attract people from the same backgrounds, the children of new immigrants and upwardly mobile members of the working class who are very concerned about their children’s education performance, but don’t have the money to pay for private school. The population of the partnership’s students look a lot like students in urban public schools: 99 percent of them are black or Hispanic, and 69 percent of them get scholarships.”

But unlike charter schools, America’s parochial schools don’t enjoy public financing. That’s why they’ve been closing, probably because of the free charter alternative. And so they’ve discovered the importance of having a network to survive.

But this is a test. Does this unique model work better? Does this “strict discipline” and “focus on character development” result in higher academic achievement than that resulting from mere “efficiency and academic rigor”? Those are the important questions here. If the partnership doesn’t end up producing much higher achievement, more and more of these schools will continue to close. Because now the population has an alternative.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer