Our Endangered Catholic Schools

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By Chester E. Finn Jr. and Andy Smarick
Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The positive findings in the Education Department's recent evaluation of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program provide more evidence that high-quality private and parochial schools can have invaluable benefits for low-income, minority students. Tragically, however, Catholic schools, long the heart and soul of urban private education, are disappearing. Last year, seven Catholic schools in Washington were converted into charters, and the Dioceses of Brooklyn and Cleveland are considering another round of school closures.

This accelerating crisis, which robs disadvantaged city students of desperately needed educational options, has such profound and negative implications that two U.S. presidents, almost two generations apart, urged intervention. One of us helped staff Richard Nixon's "panel on non-public education" in 1970; the other wrote the Bush administration's report last year. Yet schools keep closing.

If America is to preserve inner-city Catholic education, help is needed from the other side of the aisle. We hope the Obama administration will step forward.

Most urban Catholic schools were originally built to educate the children of European immigrants; today, they mostly serve poor African American and Latino students. With their long track record of successfully educating ill-served populations, these schools can play a central role in the nation's effort to expand educational opportunity and reduce the achievement gap.

But not if they disappear. Between 2000 and 2006, nearly 1,200 faith-based urban schools closed, affecting 425,000 students. Most were Catholic schools, though other faith traditions also closed many of their inner-city schools.

In these communities, good schools are scarce. Districts try, and charter schools start, but a big fraction of the successful schools in such neighborhoods are Catholic. They have intentionally kept their tuitions low to stay within reach of poor families. Their disappearance weakens American urban education and blights the prospects of many thousands of needy youngsters.

Piecemeal local solutions have fallen short. This is a national education crisis that needs a national response.

It's possible that President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan understand the gravity of this challenge. Over the past decade, their home town of Chicago led the nation in Catholic school closures -- 63. Surely they grasp the heart-rending human impact of these school closings.

Both have solid records as urban education reformers, particularly with regard to charter schools, which are built on the belief that parents need sound education options and that the common good is well served by schools run under various auspices, not just by large public-sector bureaucracies.

Urban Catholic schools, though far older than charters, are cut from the same cloth. They serve the public interest by providing a rigorous, safe education to needy students, and they are run by an organization, the Catholic Church, that through hospitals, charities, food banks and more has long made valuable contributions to the larger community. Yes, religion is woven into the fabric of these schools, but that shouldn't justify governmental indifference to their plight, especially given the paucity of other great schools in these communities.

The Obama administration could help turn this fatal tide. Stimulus funds could be used to shore up schools on the brink, provide assistance to their teachers and administrators, or expand and replicate promising local strategies. The president could support education tax credits or scholarships, which would help needy students and stabilize school enrollments. By simply underscoring his support and concern for these schools, he would indicate the bipartisan nature of this issue, thereby providing cover to others eager to act but wary of the political implications.

America can no longer be distracted by the ideological battles surrounding educational choice and competition. The issue today is simply our willingness to save vital institutions that have admirably served poor children for generations.

Republican administrations have pushed this issue as far as they were able to -- but without great success. We are audacious enough to hope that, for the sake of hundreds of thousands of at-risk children, this Democratic administration will put its shoulder to this wheel and push until there is movement.

Chester E. Finn Jr., a White House aide from 1969 to 1970 and assistant secretary of education from 1985 to 1988, is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Andy Smarick, a White House aide from 2007 to 2008 and deputy assistant secretary of education from 2008 to 2009, is a distinguished visiting fellow at the Fordham Institute.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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