Death Knell: Will Charter Schools Destroy Inner-City Catholic Schools?

Dr. Matthew Ladner

11/14/2007 12:45:16 PM - Dr. Matthew Ladner

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.

Writing in the latest issue of the Journal of Catholic Education, I detailed a more hopeful example than Michigan: Arizona. Total charter school enrollment is 12.5 percent higher in Arizona than in Michigan, despite the fact that Michigan’s population is far larger than Arizona’s. Arizona, however, has two factors working for it that Michigan does not. Arizona has both a growing student population and private school choice programs (two tax credit programs and two voucher programs).

Catholic education is anything but wilting in Arizona. Between 2004 and 2006, schools in the Diocese of Phoenix saw a two percent increase in enrollment against a national decline. Two new Catholic schools opened in the 2006-2007 school year, with four more scheduled to open. Marybeth Mueller, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Phoenix stated that the tax credit program has been “critical to keeping financially struggling families in the Catholic school system.”

Arizona private school attendance has increased outside of the Catholic schools as well. Despite the opening of hundreds of charter schools, the percentage of Arizona children attending private schools increased by 23 percent between 1991 and 2003, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Parents must pay public school taxes even if they do their fellow taxpayers the service of placing them in a private school at their own expense. If parents decide to seek an education they find a private for their children, they effectively pay twice- once when they pay taxes, another when they pay tuition and fees. Both tax credits and school vouchers can reduce this double payment penalty, expanding access to private schooling. In the process, competition will improve the performance of public schools by expanding competition for students, and (in states like Arizona) reduce public school overcrowding.

Arizona and Michigan have both enjoyed the large benefits of charter schools. The starkly different trends in private schooling suggest strongly that choice supporters must redouble their efforts on the private choice side.