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Gauging Charters' Impact on Catholic Schools

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Are charter schools siphoning students from Catholic schools?

A recent analysis out of New York examines that question and reaches a provocative conclusion: that the growth of charters is a "significant and growing factor" in declining Catholic school enrollment. Abraham M. Lackman, the president of Praxis Insights, an education and government consulting organization, and a former top staffer on the New York state Senate Finance Committee, says that competition from charter schools, and broader demographic trends, are hurting Catholic schools—and that the losses among the church's schools are likely to become more severe in the years ahead.

In his analysis, Lackman examines movement of students across traditional public schools, charter schools, and Catholic schools in New York in an attempt to show who's gaining and who's losing. Over the past decade, Catholic school K-12 enrollment in New York has declined by 96,000 students, or 35 percent, he finds. At the same time, the number of students served by charter schools jumped from about 4,000 to nearly 55,000. A similar trend is playing out nationwide.

He concludes that an overall demographic trend—namely, reductions in the number of relatively young students—accounts for 28 percent of the loss of enrollment in Catholic schools; migration to traditional public schools accounts for 42 percent, and migration to charter and other schools (typically, other privates) accounts for 30 percent.

In many communities, particularly urban areas, Catholic and charter schools are competing for the same students, Lackman explained in an interview. Some families are drawn to charters, he says, because they have many of the same qualities as Catholic schools (an emphasis on discipline and a structured learning environment, for instance), with an important, added attraction: charters are tuition-free. The losses at Catholic schools are compounded when their enrollments decline to a "tipping point" at which point they can't survive financially and must shut their doors, he says. When that day comes, families are forced to seek other options, usually traditional publics or charters, Lackman says.

Lackman presented his preliminary findings at the National Catholic Educational Association this spring, and he plans to publish them in a full paper soon. In addition to having worked in the state legislature during the late 1990s, at a time when New York was clearing the path for charter schools, Lackman also served as New York City's budget director under then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. He is now a scholar in residence at the Albany Law School.

His analysis seems certain to provoke a strong reaction among supporters and critics of school choice. One of the main questions surrounding charters since their inception two decades ago has been the extent to which they would provide a viable alternative to traditional publics. Would charters serve as innovative models for school improvement, which could compel traditional publics to improve their performance? Or would charters simply drain students and funding away from traditional publics, regardless of whether the new models outperformed the norm? Debates over those questions rage on.

Lackman's conclusion would suggest that charter school growth pose a threat to the financial well-being of another, major player in the school-choice arena: private, religious schools. Private schools, of course, are viewed as an important choice option among many policymakers, mostly political conservatives. Creating and expanding private school voucher programs has become a centerpiece of many Republican governors' and lawmakers' agendas over the past few years.

The pressure on Catholic schools from charters will only increase in the future, Lackman predicts. If the number of charter schools in New York state increases to 460 from 180 by 2020, as he projects, Catholic school enrollment will decline by an additional 28,000 students, he says.

"They cannot compete, in my opinion, with the charter school movement," said Lackman, of Catholic schools.

Lackman said he supported charter school growth during his time as a legslative staffer, and he says he still does, though he would like to see states find a way to "level the playing field" for private schools forced to compete with charters. At the time charter schools were created in New York, "the whole debate was about bringing choice to education," he recalled. "Nobody thought about the impact charter schools would have on private schools, and Catholic schools."

Diane Ravitch, an education historian who co-authors a blog for Education Week, picked up on Lackman's research and warns that if Catholic schools simply attempt to copy the charter school model to survive, they will lose their identity, and families will lose an important educational option.

"As a supporter of both public education and Catholic education, I have a solution to the dilemma," she writes. "Public money for public schools, and private money for Catholic schools. Just think of the billions that have been poured into charter schools for a tiny percentage of the nation's students (is it 4 percent now?). Imagine if the same money—or even half of it—had been devoted to building a foundation for the future of Catholic education. We would then have a far better public school system, free of the internecine battles over resources between public school parents and charter parents. And Catholic education, which serves its students so faithfully and so well, would be preserved for future generations."

On Choice Words, a blog of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Kathleen Porter-Magee says Lackman overstates the impact that charters are having on Catholic schools. The church's schools have faced a growing number of financial pressures for years, she writes. Many of them can no longer rely on nuns and priests to teach, for instance, and must hire lay people who bring higher costs.

"To be sure, the emergence of urban charter schools has given poor parents more choices—and, frankly, more affordable choices, since many simply could not afford to continue to pay the even very low tuition that Catholic schools required," she writes. "But closing charter schools—or preventing the opening of more—will simply not turn the tide in favor of urban Catholic schools. The best, or perhaps the only, way to save Catholic schools is for Catholic leaders—lay and religious alike—to make the commitment we need to keeping these schools alive. And in the meantime, closing or limiting charter options will only further limit the options available to urban parents who desperately crave better choices for their children."

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