Archdiocese shouldn't block charters

Our view: Rather than fearing competition, Catholic schools should emphasize their unique strength: faith

March 21, 2011

A year ago, Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien made a bold move he hoped could save Baltimore's troubled Catholic school system. He called for the closure of 13 schools in an attempt at a rapid retrenchment that would put the system on sound fiscal footing and give it the chance to offer an attractive choice to parents, alongside the region's public and private schools. Rather than presiding over a slow decline, the archbishop chose to play offense, leading a reimagining of Baltimore's parochial schools and promising a future that would benefit Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

But the archdiocese's reluctance to lease its now-shuttered school buildings to charter schools belies that spirit. It speaks to an intuition huddled in a defensive crouch, not one that believes it has something unique and important to offer. If the system views increasing competition from quality public schools as something to fear, it is in a losing position.

As The Sun's Erica L. Green reported Thursday, officials at Baltimore International Academy, a charter school that features foreign language immersion and had outgrown its leased space on the campus of the Maryland School for the Blind, were rebuffed in their efforts to buy the vacant St. Anthony's of Padua school. The sales advertisement was specific: "This school building cannot be leased or sold to public charter schools." The reason, according to archdiocese spokesman Sean Caine, was that allowing a charter to occupy that school would siphon off too many families whose children previously attended St. Anthony's and weaken the other Catholic schools in the area, particularly a new dual-language, Spanish-English school in Highlandtown.

The archdiocese's policy, adopted amid the school restructuring last year, does not amount to a blanket ban on selling or leasing former Catholic school buildings to charter or traditional public schools — the archdiocese has done so before and likely will again. But it does require the archbishop to consider such opportunities on a case-by-case basis, with a mind toward considering how they might affect enrollment at the remaining Catholic schools.

This is not an abstract concern. The system has seen increased competition from charter schools, as they, like Catholic schools have for years, offer an increasingly attractive alternative to standard public schools — the only differences being that they don't charge $5,000 a year in tuition and, for many families, are closer than the competing parochial schools. The drain of children from Catholic schools to charters was a key factor in the decisions to close some of the 13 schools last year.

The archdiocese's desire to avoid helping the competition is understandable but ultimately misguided. If the only thing Catholic schools have to offer is that they're an alternative to low-quality neighborhood schools, the system is putting itself in a position of rooting against the rapid improvement in Baltimore's public school system and against the flourishing of educational choice through the charter movement. Perhaps the archdiocese can stave off competition for a time by blocking the Baltimore International Academy's move into one of its old buildings, but it can't stop the steady turnaround of the Baltimore City Public Schools. If the Catholic schools are going to survive, they need to convince parents that they get something for their tuition that they can't at a public school, even an excellent one.

What that is should be obvious. The archdiocese conducted focus groups before last year's school closure and found that the religious component of the education its schools offer and the atmosphere of faith are a chief draw, even among the majority of Baltimore City parochial students who are non-Catholic. In addition to changes in school management and the creation of new curricular offerings, a key part of the system's turnaround plan was to re-energize Catholic formation in the schools. That is the one thing no charter school can offer, and there are still many parents in this city, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, who believe that's worth paying for.

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