• Joanne Jacobs

Can charters be ‘schools of virtue’


Urban Catholic schools are closing, victims of an obsolete funding model, writes Stephanie Saroki de García of Seton Partners. The Archdiocese of Memphis will close 10 inner-city schools, all part of the “Jubilee Catholic Schools” consortium that was hailed as the “Memphis Miracle” 20 years ago.


Brilla Charter Prep student


We need “schools of virtue” to educate our neediest children, she writes. Can charters fill that gap?

When Catholic schools closed in Chicago’s poor neighborhoods, crime and disorder increased, researchers found. Charter schools “do not yet appear to generate the same positive community benefits” as Catholic schools, they concluded.

But there is hope, writes Garcia, co-founder of a national non-profit, Seton Education Partners.

Our goal was—and still is—to expand opportunities for underserved children in America to receive an academically excellent and vibrantly Catholic education. Part of our work is operating 16 blended-learning urban schools in eight cities. Thirteen of these are Catholic schools; the other three are charter schools in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the South Bronx, one of the nation’s poorest communities.

Seton stepped in 2011 when “the Archdiocese of New York made the heartbreaking decision to close almost 60 schools due to declining enrollment and financial instability.”

Most of the recently shuttered New York schools served mostly low-income and minority children in grades K–8. They provided these boys and girls a safe haven and a holistic education that nurtured theirs heads, hearts, and spirits. In response to these closings, and at the Church’s request, Seton Education Partners set out to pioneer a new charter school model that, when paired with a vibrant after-school faith-formation program, which is voluntary for children and that does not use government funds, would achieve the goals of Catholic education for the poor—and would do so in a financially sustainable way that complies with charter school laws in both word and spirit.

Seton’s charters use “a secular approach to character education,” Garcia writes. “They take seriously the desperate need to educate children in virtues like courage, justice, wisdom, and self-control. Though not explicitly religious, these are transcendental values.”

Charters aren’t the future of Catholic education, writes Kathleen Porter Magee, who runs Partnership Schools, a network of high-performing, inner-city Catholic schools, in New York City.

When Catholic schools become charters, “we lose the ability to unapologetically teach our faith and values,” she writes. “Authority over curriculum and instruction is turned over to a state-authorized public school.”

Catholic schools have been fighting for access to public money—and in many cases for the right to exist at all—since the first school opened more than 160 years ago. Today, twenty-eight states have passed tax credit scholarship or voucher laws that empower even the most disadvantaged students to choose Catholic schools. And public support for private school choice is slowly rising. . . . When we embrace these Catholic “conversions,” are we giving up our autonomy and the broader fight for authentic parent choice exactly when we have the greatest chance of true success?

Catholic schools can survive financially, if they have the flexibility to innovate, she writes.

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