Across the country, Catholic schools are dying. And I'm not talking about the elite, country club-ish schools to which people like Chris Christie send their kids; no, I'm talking about inner-city and small suburban parish Catholic schools.
As is the case in many businesses on their last legs, the purveyors of Catholic schools are attempting to convince themselves that their biggest problem is marketing. Here in Jersey, the Newark Diocese just hired a layperson to rebrand their schools among the faithful and others. But the fact they had to go outside the clergy to hire someone highlights the real problem.
Catholic schools used to rely on an army of low-wage, well-educated nuns and priests to do the teaching and administrating. But unless Benedict's replacement is a radical and starts allowing women to become priests and marriage among the ordained (don't hold your breath), those days are long gone. Catholic schools just don't have the workforce of religious that made them economically viable; to survive, they must now draw from the laity, who have mortgages to pay and their own children to raise.
Add to this the changing demographic composition of the church (and its possible decline; it's a complicated question) and the prospects for a broad base of Catholic schools in the future are not very good. And so the reports of Catholic school closings keep coming in: New York City, Philadelphia, Upstate New York, Ohio, North Jersey, Baltimore, Buffalo, South Jersey... and as the schools close, a question rises:
What happens to the facilities? I ask because there is a rising incidence of former Catholic school facilities being taken over by charter schools.
Some have made the case that charters have been drawing away students who would have otherwise attended Catholic schools, forcing the Catholic schools to close. Diane Ravitch - not a Catholic herself but certainly an admirer of Catholic schools - has been impressed by the argument that the rise of charters has been a large contributor to the fall of Catholic schools.
I'm far less convinced. While it may be true that in some instances charters are accelerating Catholic school declines, I doubt this tells much of the story. Catholic schools were in decline before the arrival of charters, and - speaking from my own background as a "lapsed" Catholic - I suspect that changes within the church itself are far more responsible for the decline of parish schools than charter proliferation.
So I don't believe we have much of a direct cause-and-effect relationship between the enrollment numbers at charters and Catholic schools, even as I concede others may see things differently. What's beyond dispute, however, is that we have had many instances where charters have moved into closed Catholic schools. Take Riverbank Charter School of Excellence in New Jersey (which was just denied an application for expansion): it's housed in a former Catholic school. In Baltimore, one-quarter of the closed Catholic schools are occupied by charters. Many closed Catholic schools in Chicago are now being occupied by charter schools (and, apparently, the crime rate in those neighborhoods has risen. This is a fascinating article; I'll try to come back to it at some point.).
Regular readers will remember the saga of Regis Academy in Cherry Hill, NJ, a charter that was neither wanted nor needed by the local community. Regis was supposed to be housed in a former Catholic parish facility, but the charter operator had trouble making payments on the property. It always struck me as odd that the Catholic diocese kept giving the folks behind Regis chance after chance to come up with the money to buy the church; didn't they have any other buyers?
Apparently not - near as I can tell, the property is still for sale. Should that surprise anyone? It's not like a former Catholic school can be easily converted into another use, and it's not like many of these sites are in commercial corridors or desirable residential neighborhoods. What else can these properties be used for if not schools?
Here in New Jersey, the Catholic Church has made clear that it is not interested in converting its schools into charters. But that means it will be loaded down with former schools that serve no use, yet still need to be maintained. Their best option is to sell these facilities - but to whom? Happily, along come charter schools, bolstered by incentives like the New Markets Tax Credit. Charters need spaces for their schools; the Church needs to sell its properties. Win-win.
The only problem for the Church in the future may be that the market for school facilities actually becomes saturated: as urban public districts lose students to charters and downsize - like in Newark - their old schools are being snapped up by charters. Catholic dioceses may actually be competing with local school boards to see who can unload their facilities first.
And then there's the issue of critical mass (no pun intended). At some point, charters won't be able to grow any more, as it's clear they do not want to take all of the children in a district - especially the ones who are the most expensive to educate. Are there more school facilities on the market than the charter sector is willing to buy?
I suspect not: charters are a growth industry, and politicians have shown their willingness to throw barrels of money at them. In a way, charters are a conduit where the Church can accept taxpayer funds to buy up their unused properties. That may be why, to my ears, the Church's response to the proliferation of charters has been quiet resignation. Charters may be accelerating the death of Catholic education, but at least the Church is getting a buyout. That may be the best they can hope for, even if it's not the best thing for the students they used to serve.
It's either that, or hope someone gets sent on "a mission from God" on their behalf...