Charters & Choice

America's urban Catholic schools are in crisis. Over 1,300 of them have shut down since 1990, mostly in our cities. As a result, some 300,000 students have been displaced--double the number affected by Hurricanes Rita and Katrina. These children have been forced to attend other schools at an estimated cost to taxpayers of more than $20 billion.

Fordham's latest report, which includes a comprehensive survey of the attitudes of U.S. Catholics and the broader public toward inner-city Catholic schools, examines this crisis and offers several suggestions for arresting and perhaps reversing this trend in the interests of better education. By looking at seven case studies, the report shows that in a few cities, such as Wichita, urban Catholic education is making a comeback. However, in other cities like Milwaukee and Washington, D.C., despite public voucher programs, enrollment continues to decline and/or schools are being closed or converted into charters.

Related Resources

Full survey results

Fordham VP Mike Petrilli discusses the report on NPR, Fox Business channel, and Fordham Factor

    In A Nutshell brief of the report...

    The Oregonian reports that its state board of education last week gave the green light to "virtual" charter schools in the state, but put them on a "short cord." Under the "compromise," such schools will be limited to 100 students per grade, all of whom must ask their home school districts for permission to go virtual. The enrollment cap is a major disappointment. Such a "slow growth" policy might make sense in states without any virtual school experience; getting a foot in the door is a decent political strategy, and creates an opportunity for the schools to prove themselves, demonstrate parental demand via long waiting lists, and build momentum for more flexible state policies. But Oregon is no stranger to virtual education; it is already home to the 1,800 student Connections Academy, which by all accounts is doing well. Another 900-student school, the Oregon Virtual Academy, operated by K12*, was slated to open in the fall. It's hard to see this cap as anything but a boon to the traditional public school system--and its unions--and a slap in the face to parents looking for a school that fits their child's needs.

    But even worse is the veto power given to local school districts that don't want their students attending these schools. In an age when the value of "public school choice" is widely agreed upon, I can't think of any other "inter-district" plan where the "sending" district can block children at the schoolhouse door. Of course this...

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    Liam asks "if urban Catholic schools can't compete with charter schools, why do they deserve special help?"

    But Liam, charter schools are free for the families who choose them, while, outside of the handful of cities with voucher programs, Catholic schools ain't. If we could find a way for both charter schools and Catholic schools to receive public support, then I'd say yes, let the best schools win. Until then, somebody needs to give deserving Catholic schools a lift. And if the Pope isn't willing, how can we expect Uncle Sam to volunteer?

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    Liam Julian

    Mike, I may agree with your point that Catholic schools should receive public funding. But it doesn't look likely that they will, on any grand scale, in the near future, especially if come January 2009 both the White House and Congress are run by a party more friendly to public-school teachers' unions and more hostile to choice. And even where voucher programs exist--Milwaukee, for example--several Catholic schools that receive vouchers have closed despite boosting their enrollments. The Catholic schools' troubles can't be remedied by public funding alone, it seems.

    But you haven't answered the main question: Why the big push from education-policy groups to save Catholic schools, in particular? Is the assumption that all Catholic schools are superior to their k-12 public-school, or public charter-school, counterparts? And is the assumption that closed Catholic schools cannot be replaced by high-quality charter-school alternatives?

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    Liam Julian

    Update: The NBA's number 1 draft pick is against???i.e., not supportive of, never has been and never will be, how dare you think I might have been or could possibly be???vouchers.

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    For information on Fordham's unique role as a charter school sponsor in Ohio, there's no better source than The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation Sponsorship Accountability Report 2006-07. The report offers a comprehensive account of Fordham's sponsorship policies and practices-as well as individual profiles of all Fordham-sponsored schools. Included in the profiles are descriptions of each school's educational program, school philosophy, and overall academic performance.

    Public school principals encounter a sizable gap between the autonomy they believe they need to be effective and the autonomy that they actually have in practice, especially when it comes to hiring, firing, and transferring teachers. That's a key finding of this report from the Fordham Institute and the American Institutes for Research, which is based on a series of interviews with a small sample of district and charter-school principals. Regrettably if understandably, many district principals have also come to accept this "autonomy gap" as a fact of life. They learn to work the system, not change the system.

    Full reports on each state in the study as well as just charter schools across all three states are available only online:

    For information on Fordham's unique role as a charter school sponsor in Ohio, there's no better source than The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation Sponsorship Accountability Report 2005-06. The report offers a comprehensive account of Fordham's sponsorship policies and practices-as well as individual profiles of all Fordham-sponsored schools. Included in the profiles are descriptions of each school's educational program, school philosophy, and overall academic performance based on state achievement data.

    The Fordham Report 2006: How Well Are States Educating Our Neediest Children? appraises each state according to thirty indicators across three major categories: student achievement for low-income, African-American, and Hispanic students; achievement trends for these same groups over the last 10-15 years; and the state's track record in implementing bold education reforms. It finds that just eight states can claim even moderate success over the past 15 years at boosting the percentage of their poor or minority students who are at or above proficient in reading, math or science. In addition, most states making significant achievement gains--including California, Delaware, Florida, New York, Massachusetts, and Texas--are national leaders in education reform, indicating that solid standards, tough accountability, and greater school choice can yield better classroom results.

    At the request of Ohio's top government and education leaders, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, National Association of Charter School Authorizers, and National Alliance for Public Charter Schools have issued a report seeking to strengthen the state's charter school program. Among its 17 recommendations are calls for closing low-performing charter schools and holding sponsors more accountable for oversight of the growing charter movement while also helping more high-performance schools to open and succeed in Ohio. In return for sharply stepped-up accountability, restrictions on the formation of high-quality charters should be removed, and charter schools should receive more equitable funding.

    Turning the Corner to Quality bases its findings on research and analysis of Ohio school performance data; a review of best practices in other states; input from experts in charter school finance, sponsorship, accountability and policy; and evaluation of dozens of policy options.

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