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Catholic Schools Benefit From Converting to Charter Schools, Study Finds

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By guest blogger Gina Cairney

Roman Catholic schools that converted from private schools to public charter schools experienced a significant increase in student enrollment, as well as a "meaningful" increase in the percentage of minority students at those schools, finds a recent analysis from the Friedman Foundation, an Indianapolis-based, pro-education choice group.

The report looked at enrollment data of three cities—Miami, Indianapolis, and the District of Columbia—before and after the transition, and found that schools that switched flourished while those that didn't either shut down or continued with limited resources.

After the economic downturn hit, the archdioceses overseeing Catholic schools in the District of Columbia and Miami determined they couldn't support some of their schools. The school systems created a plan, which included closing schools, renting out the buildings to charter operators, and reopening the private schools as public charter schools. Some of the converted schools retained most of the original staff and students, but also saw a boost in enrollment.

Indianapolis took a slightly different path. The archdiocese there created its own board to oversee the schools and obtained a charter from the city mayor's office, rather than reaching out to independent charter authorizers. According to the report, this allowed the converted schools to maintain the archdiocese's commitment to particular communities.

For the entire study, only 18 schools were examined—those schools with enough enrollment data before and after the conversion, with overlap in staff and students. These schools lost, on average, 7.3 students per year. After the switch however, they gained an average of 34.4 students per year, the study found.

Although the converted schools saw benefits in student growth, the private schools that didn't convert also saw some benefits, mostly in terms of funding.

According to the report, the rental income made from the converted schools became a serious revenue stream, a substantial portion of the funds which then went toward tuition assistance for students attending the unconverted schools—a big help for families who want a Catholic education but are unable to afford tuition.

As Catholic schools continue to face declining enrollment, and competition from the expansion of charter schools, the study offers insights on what "converting" could do for private schools weighing their options.

So will this become a trend for struggling Catholic schools?

Based on the success seen in the three districts highlighted, the report suggests that yes, this "sector-switching" might become a trend.

For instance, a bill passed last year in New Jersey allows struggling parochial schools to convert to a public charter school, but they're not allowed to teach religion. A Newark private school became the first to take advantage of that law, according to the news site nj.com.

But how each district makes the conversion will largely depend on the environment, said Michael McShane, the study's co-author, in a phone interview.

The Friedman Foundation's report does acknowledge that research on this kind of "sector-switching" is limited, but it also raises questions about the future of urban Catholic schooling, as well as policy questions regarding school choice.

The report does not however mention whether such conversions violate any legal mandates calling for separation of church and state.

In a telephone interview, McShane said there was no violation because, in all the examined cases—except Indianapolis—the converted schools, while located on church property, were run by secular organizations. In Indianapolis, the archdiocese plays a role in charter authorization, but the schools don't teach religion during school hours, he said, making this particular system unique.

"It's not a violation of the separation of church and state for the church to rent out the buildings," McShane said.

Some of the churches do offer extracurricular activities and religious instruction, but these occurred outside school hours, and are offered as an option to the students, McShane said.

If the converted schools teach religion, there's a risk of losing their charter status, McShane said, so there's a strong incentive for the church to not violate that rule.

McShane emphasized that the point of this study wasn't to make a judgement about whether one model or type of school was good or bad, better or worse.

It was about "trying to describe the phenomenon in as much detail as possible, tease out the implications of such conversions, and just provide information for those considering the move," he said.


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