The Education Next article “Can Catholic Schools Be Saved?” asks the provocative question: Will charter schools finish off inner city Catholic private schools? Preliminary evidence suggests that charter schools are actually threatening to help close inner city Catholic schools. A RAND Corporation study focusing on the impact of charter schools in Michigan found that private schools were taking a bigger hit from charter school competition than public schools on a student for student basis. “Private schools will lose one student for every three students gained in the charter schools,” the study concluded.
Ronald Nuzzi, director of the Alliance for Catholic Education Leadership Program at the University of Notre Dame asserted that charter schools “are one of the biggest threats to Catholic schools in the inner city, hands down. How do you compete with an alternative that doesn’t cost anything?” Inner-city Catholic schools are in a deep and tragic crisis, especially in Michigan. Sadly, Michigan’s constitution essentially forbids private school choice of any sort, and the Diocese of Detroit has witnessed a 20 percent decline in enrollment since 2002 and currently faces another round of school closures. Overall, 29 Diocese of Detroit schools have already closed.
Ironically, many of the best charter schools, such as the KIPP Academies, drew inspiration from Catholic school practices. Research by Stanford economist Caroline Hoxby has demonstrated that charter schools have spurred a positive competitive response from adjacent public schools. Other research, including a Goldwater Institute study by Lew Solomon and Pete Goldschmidt have shown that students enrolling in charter schools make larger achievement gains than their public school peers.
A fully scaled system of charter schools for inner-city areas may represent an existential threat to inner-city Catholic schools already struggling with the loss of religious staff and the movement of parishioners to the suburbs. In many inner city areas, Catholic schools have been the only high performing schools for decades. Catholic schools have an especially strong record in successfully educating disadvantaged students and sending them on to college. It would be tragic and absurd to help drive these schools out of business by publicly funding student attendance to both public and charter schools, but not to private schools.