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D.C. Catholic Schools Follow National Trend
Report Tracks Conversion to Charters

By Theola Labbé
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 11, 2008

The Archdiocese of Washington's plan to give up operating seven of its Catholic schools reflects a national trend outlined in a report released yesterday by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which says that 1,300 Catholic schools have closed since 1990, affecting about 300,000 students.

When those students moved from private to public schools, taxpayers across the country spent more than $20 billion on their education, according to the report, titled "Who Will Save America's Urban Catholic Schools?" It tracked the closure of schools with statistics from the National Catholic Education Association and used averages of per-pupil spending to estimate the public cost.

The decline of inner-city Catholic schools has been hastened by Catholics moving to the suburbs, the employment of more lay teachers and principals at higher salaries, and rising tuition that priced out the poor and minority families that the schools sought to educate, according to the report from the Washington-based institute.

Some parishes across the country have developed innovative solutions. In Wichita, congregations are pressed to tithe so that Catholic education can be free for Catholics, according to the report.

The report comes as Washington-area Catholics prepare for next week's arrival of Pope Benedict XVI, who plans to speak to Catholic educators in an address at Catholic University. It also comes as city leaders and charter school officials begin grappling with the implications of the decision last fall to give up operating seven of the 12 schools in the Center City Consortium and a proposal to convert them to charter schools. More than 1,100 students will be affected.

Last month, Center City Public Charter Schools, a nonprofit charter operator selected by the archdiocese, submitted an application for the schools to the D.C. Public Charter School Board. The archdiocese closed two schools last year: St. Benedict the Moor in the Kingman Park section of Northeast Washington, and Our Lady of Perpetual Help, with two campuses in Southeast.

"There's lots of different answers to the problem of saving Catholic schools. This is one of them," said Mary Anne Stanton, executive director of Center City Public Charter Schools. Stanton, who is familiar with the conversion schools as the former consortium director, said that for years the archdiocese has given money and other support to its inner-city schools, but the schools were not financially viable.

"For the archbishop, it's a new model to continue to use church buildings to serve kids," Stanton said.

Report co-author Michael J. Petrilli said the D.C. conversions "seem to be a reasonable compromise."

"We don't know what it's going to mean for the quality of the education if you take the faith-based component out," he said. But he added that if the converted schools are academically successful, more dioceses could follow suit.

If the charter board decides in June to grant a charter to Center City Public Charter Schools, the converted schools will open in August.

The nonprofit plans to operate the schools at the existing locations, paying rent to the archdiocese, which owns the properties, according to a letter of intent signed by the archdiocese and submitted with the application.

According to the application, the first-year operating budget for the converted schools would be about $15.7 million, with all but $1.33 million coming from the city's budget.

At a hearing Tuesday, D.C. Council members raised questions about the budget implications of the conversions. They urged better coordination between city officials and the independent charter board, which was created by a federal charter school law.

"I want to protect and preserve the existing charter schools, but I think we need safeguards on how these expansions are rolled out," said David A. Catania (I-At Large).

Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) said yesterday that he was concerned about the budget impact and was looking into possible sources of revenue.

Staff writer Nikita Stewart contributed to this report.

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