Officials at SE Catholic School Offer an Improbable Prayer

Holy Comforter's principal, Christian White, intends to stay on if the Catholic school becomes a public charter school.
Holy Comforter's principal, Christian White, intends to stay on if the Catholic school becomes a public charter school. (Kevin Clark - The Washington Post)
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By Marc Fisher
Sunday, June 15, 2008

As the curtain fell on another school year and the children, beaming in neat white-and-blue uniforms, waited to receive their awards, the pastor led everyone in calling upon the Lord. "I want you to keep praying for the charter board to make the right decision on Monday," Monsignor Charles Pope said in the cafeteria of Holy Comforter-Saint Cyprian School. "Change can be difficult, but we'll see that God can do wonderful things in ways that we don't expect."

The pastor was praying, improbably, for the D.C. charter school board to turn this Catholic school near RFK Stadium into a secular, public institution. He was praying for a change so dramatic that, come September, Pope says it would be inappropriate for him to set foot in the building, a school his church has run for 116 years.

Holy Comforter is one of seven D.C. Catholic schools that closed last week for the last time. Whether they reopen in the fall as public charter schools is up to the charter board. Approval is expected -- the board is ever-eager for more charter schools -- but D.C. politicians are grumbling about having to cough up the millions of unbudgeted dollars it would take to run those schools.

But beyond the decade-old debate over whether charters are undermining the regular public schools or liberating parents to escape from that failed system, the collapse of the inner-city Catholic schools raises another tough question: What makes a Catholic school Catholic? Come fall, will these Catholic schools, scrubbed of prayer and overt symbols of faith, still be a place apart?

No more will students (77 percent of whom are not Catholic) attend Mass each week or pray each morning. No more will they study religion three or four times a week. The curriculum is being rewritten to remove the myriad ways in which Catholic schools weave the lessons of the faith into everything from biology to literature. In matters of discipline -- a hallmark of Catholic education -- "we would no longer be able to appeal to 'what would Jesus do' or 'God is watching,' " Pope says.

Still, Holy Comforter and the other Catholic schools planning to convert to charters are confidently promoting a values-oriented education, a Catholic school experience without the Catholic part. "We could have sold the building for condos," Pope says, "but we had a passion to keep it as a school. Even if we can't celebrate Jesus Christ, the virtues of goodness, truth and beauty are found outside the confines of the Catholic faith or even Christianity."

Holy Comforter's principal, Christian White, intends to stay on, as do most of the teachers and students.

"I shed my tears," says White, 35, who has spent his entire career in Catholic schools, "but upon reflection, I can still love the children in a Christlike way and not talk about it."

Driving this unusual transformation is a typically Washingtonian struggle over money and power. The Archdiocese of Washington's inner-city elementary schools were losing more than $7 million a year. After many years of bailouts and subsidies, the church decided it had to set priorities and shift some spending to suburbs where the Catholic population is surging.

In a charter school, the taxpayers pay the freight. But the Ward 6 D.C. Council member, Tommy Wells, wonders whether taxpayers should pay for a school in which the faculty was originally hired without the rules that govern a public institution. "In a public school," he says, "you can't ask a job applicant, 'Are you gay?' 'Do you believe in abortion?' 'Are you Muslim or Christian?' Just removing the crosses and changing the curriculum isn't making it a public school."

Only a quarter of the teachers at Holy Comforter are Catholic, White says. And what parents and students care about is whether the teachers are committed, effective and loving, not what faith or political views they hold, he adds.

Still, Wells and other D.C. politicians are bucking against the enormous growth of the charters, which now get more than $350 million a year from the city and attract about 22,000 students to the regular public system's nearly 50,000.

But charters have so much independence that D.C. pols can do little but squawk and whine. The real confrontation is coming on vouchers, another experiment the feds foisted on the District. The decline of the Catholic schools is the No. 2 reason it's time to correct the vouchers mistake. (No. 1: Vouchers are a cynical backdoor way to use public money to support religious schools.)

Vouchers -- the 1,900 federally funded scholarships of about $7,500 each that go to low-income D.C. residents to be used at private schools -- are used overwhelmingly at Catholic schools. Even with public dollars, these Catholic schools couldn't make it. As students move from Catholic schools to charters, they no longer need vouchers. White says most voucher recipients at Holy Comforter -- more than half the students get the federal support -- are staying at the charter school and will give up their vouchers.

If Holy Comforter, renamed Center City Charter, maintains its standards as a secular school, it deserves the same public support provided to any charter. Will something essential to the character of a Catholic school be missing? Perhaps. But the church's decision to close seven schools provides an unintentional public service: It reveals the real purpose -- and the failure -- of vouchers.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company