Although they’ve long been a favorite of working-class parents in search of safe, structured, morally solid environments, inner-city Catholic schools have struggled with finances and enrollment numbers for decades. A new report from the Friedman Foundation, authored by Michael McShane and Andrew Kelly, explores the ways in which the advent of charter schools may provide a Lazarus moment to urban parochial schools through conversion—but also could ultimately weaken the Catholic schools that remain by narrowing the choice marketplace. In recent years, archdioceses have “spun off” some of their schools into charters, since they could no longer financially support their full portfolio of schools. Conversion allowed the schools to operate without charging tuition and for the selected schools—typically with wraparound religious services—to continue to serve their student body. In the studied schools in D.C., Miami, and Indianapolis, switching sectors reversed dwindling enrollment and meaningfully increased the percentage of minority students at the schools—indicating to the authors that there are a greater number of people who want to choose a Catholic school than can pay for one, even considering current voucher programs. It also stabilized the archdiocese’s finances, as they could charge operators rent and therefore had more money for the fewer students in their remaining schools. However, while many of the charter schools had the same staff and base student body as their Catholic incarnations, many leaders felt that conversion—even with the proffered wraparound services—removed the soul of Catholic education. Further, switching also raises questions about the true goals of school-choice policy: if it is to maximize the diversity of approaches to education, switching actually works against that goal, since it crowds out remaining Catholic schools. The authors suggest that improving current voucher programs offers the best potential for preserving Catholic education—archdiocese leaders in Indianapolis, who chose to close schools prior to the introduction of Indiana’s voucher program, believe they wouldn’t have converted had the generously funded voucher program been in existence—but the voucher amounts must be hefty enough to provide adequate support to keep the schools alive. After all, while Catholic schools can work miracles educationally, they can’t work miracles with money.

Michael Q. McShane and Andrew P. Kelly, Sector Switchers: Why Catholic Schools Convert to Charters and What Happens Next (Washington, D.C.: The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, April 2014).

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