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Can Converting to Charter Status Save Struggling Catholic Schools?

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Now that Republican lawmakers in Tennessee have officially abandoned a more than decade-long push to legalize school vouchers in the state, a network of struggling Roman Catholic schools in Memphis has announced dramatic plans to keep its campuses open and serving students—converting all the schools into public charters.

Although uncommon, this is not the first time this strategy has been deployed to keep urban Catholic K-12 campuses open. And as enrollment in Catholic schools continues to plunge nationwide—a trend in part driven by competition from charters—such charter conversions may become more commonplace.

Financial sustainability was at the root of the Catholic Diocese of Memphis' decision to close the schools. The Memphis Jubilee Catholic Schools Network, which served mostly low-income students free of tuition, relied on donations to run. Without the hope of getting public money through state-funded school vouchers this year, the Diocese has decided to shutter the schools at the end of next school year. 

In a statement, the Diocese told parents that an independent group was planning to open a charter network in place of the Jubilee schools where current students could "maintain continuity in education with a strong foundation already in place."

That group, newly-formed and led by the president of a local Catholic university, notified the Shelby County school district last week it plans to submit applications to open charter schools in each of the Jubilee network school buildings for the 2019-20 school year.

Should the school district approve all of the applications, the new group would become the largest charter network in the city, according to local media outlets.

From Catholic to Charter, Private to Public

If the Jubilee network schools make the switch to charters, they will join a small but growing club of Catholic schools in cities such as Indianapolis, Miami, and Washington that have opted to shed their religious identities to remain open.

The arrangement has benefits and drawbacks. A 2014 report from EdChoice (formally called the Friedman Foundation), found that switching sectors dramatically increased enrollment and resources for schools. Local dioceses, which often continue to own the buildings and rent them to the newly converted charter schools, can use the rent money to help prop up their remaining Catholic schools.

However, this strategy doesn't do much for the plight facing Catholic education nationally.

Catholic school enrollment has plummeted from 5.2 million during its heyday in the 1960s to about 1.9 million today, according to the National Catholic Education Association. A mixture of changing demographics, rising tuition costs, and increased competition from charter schools—some of which, with their strict codes of conduct and uniforms, appear very similar to parochial schools—have hit urban Catholic schools especially hard.

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Photo: Johann Lara, 6, walks through a hallway at Mater Beach Academy, a former Catholic school that converted to a charter school in 2010 and has been able to upgrade its technology and facilities as a result. —Josh Ritchie for Education Week

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