Urban tragedy

During the past few years, scores of impoverished inner-city schools have shut their doors. On the surface, that could be a blessing. After all, one of the major problems with American education is that bad schools seem to live forever.

But, alas, I'm not writing about those schools--the persistently failing public schools that, under No Child Left Behind, are supposed to be "restructured" out of existence, or at least subjected to an extreme makeover. No, the ones leaving children standing outside their locked doors are generally places of deep learning, community institutions that have effectively served the children of the poor for generations. They are Catholic parochial schools--and their closure is nothing but a tragedy.

The trend is unmistakable. The Archdiocese of Detroit closed 21 schools last year (and more are likely to shut next year). The New York and Brooklyn archdioceses shut down 36 schools over the past two years. In 2005, the Chicago archdiocese ended operations in 18 schools. And the tally in Boston? Twenty-one schools over four years. The longer-term trends are even bleaker: Several big cities, such as Chicago, serve less than a third of the students today than they did 40 years ago.

The closures have little to do with the quality of education that these schools provide. Two decades of studies have shown them to be effective, especially for poor and minority children. Rather, broader demographic trends are to blame. Simply put, the schools' pipeline of affordable teachers has run dry. Once upon a time, most Catholic-school instructors were members of religious orders, requiring little or no cash compensation; now there are more nuns over age 90 than under 50 in the U.S., and only five percent of the schools' teachers come from religious orders. Lay teachers must be paid a decent wage, pushing Catholic-school tuitions out of reach for many poor families.

Meanwhile, in some of the same poor neighborhoods where effective Catholic schools are getting the axe, failing public schools remain open, seemingly resistant to reform.

Wasn't the "accountability movement" supposed to change that? Since the late 1990s, there's been a bipartisan consensus that persistently underperforming public schools should be transformed or shuttered. In the 2000 presidential debate, even Al Gore said that, if they don't respond to extra resources and reform efforts, failing schools should be closed.

That sentiment made its way into President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, which gives failing schools five years to get better and make "adequate yearly progress." But if they don't, they are supposed to face severe consequences. NCLB requires school districts to implement one of five "alternative governance" arrangements: 1) reopen the school as a charter school; 2) replace all or most of the staff; 3) contract with a private management company to run the school; 4) turn the school over to the state; or 5) implement "any other major restructuring of the school's governance arrangement."

Which of those five options do you think most school districts are choosing? If you guessed #5, give yourself a gold star. This has become known simply as "the loophole," because its abuse is so rampant. The Center on Education Policy has studied the "restructuring" of failing schools in California and Michigan and found that most districts are electing this last option and then "intervening" with nicey-nice reforms, such as sending an "instructional coach" to the school or tweaking its curriculum. For schools that have been failing since their fifth graders were in kindergarten, these punishments hardly match the crime; these lukewarm reactions run contrary to the spirit of NCLB.

Why aren't federal enforcers doing more to address this scandal? To be fair, it's hard enough for Washington to coerce states and school districts to do something simple and straightforward (such as testing all their new teachers before allowing them into the classroom). Getting them to do something complex and unpopular (such as shutting schools, dismissing their teaching staffs, and reopening them under new management) is next to impossible.

One might at least expect Education Secretary Margaret Spellings to use her megaphone to push the system to do the right thing. Instead, she has chosen to whisper. In "non-regulatory guidance" released this summer with zero fanfare, the Education Department urged states and districts to foreswear the loophole and instead enact "fundamental reforms" such as "dissolving" failing schools or closing and reopening them. The guidance also made clear that teacher union contracts can't be used to exempt schools from the restructuring provisions.

This is a good start, but it's going to take far greater attention--and some actual threats of withholding funds--to get states and districts to implement NCLB's tough-love approach. The secretary might think that law is "99.9 percent pure--like Ivory Soap," as she cheekily claimed last month, but if thousands of failing schools are allowed to exist in perpetuity, the act's credibility is going to sink like a stone.

Spellings even has a ready-made answer to critics who say that failing public schools can't be closed because there's nowhere else for their pupils to go: the hundreds of Catholic schools that would be more than happy to serve them--if only they don't close their own doors first. In fact, the president's $100 million "Opportunity Scholarships for Kids" proposal could simultaneously provide options to students trapped in failing public schools, at least in a handful of communities, while also throwing a lifeline to valuable Catholic schools. That's been a powerful combination in D.C., where the federally-funded Washington Scholarship Fund has provided second chances to 2,000 District of Columbia schoolchildren--and to the parochial schools that now serve many of them.

The dire situation of urban Catholic schools invites divine intervention. But in the meantime, a little federal intervention--in the form of school vouchers--just might have to do.

This article originally appeared, in slightly altered form, in National Review Online.

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