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One of the quirks of President Obama is that he appears liberal, but is strikingly pragmatic. This idiosyncrasy may benefit Catholic schools. Obama supports charter schools, even though this view is opposed by teachers’ unions.
For those who need a refresher course, charter schools are run by independent agencies, are funded with public dollars, but are not formal parts of the public school district. While they must match educational standards of government, charter schools are free to address matters like dress code, teachers’ salaries, and organization of the curriculum on their own terms.
Obama’s policy has opened up the possibility that Catholic schools could be turned into charter schools. This would address the alarming rates at which parish schools have been closing over the past two decades, basically for want of income. In the Diocese of Brooklyn this past week, it was announced that some parish schools previously slated for closure, would be transformed into New York City charter schools. Praised by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was the ability of the parish school to involve parents, instill discipline and raise the career aspirations of its students. Might this decision become a national trend? If it did, President Obama might well go down in the history books as the “savior of Catholic schools.”
I do not wish to suggest that the president is blind to the objections against such a marriage of public funds to schools run by churches. Teachers’ unions have generally opposed charter schools when they have been proposed as rivals to public schools, meaning that money is taken away from public instruction. In fact, there are many instances where charter schools have become a money-making proposition for a politically connected entrepreneur who employs non-union teachers at sub-scale salaries and merely “teaches to the test.” There was also a lot of political posturing by right-wing politicians who pretended that denying money to public schools via vouchers or funds to charter schools shows concern that non-white and poor parents would “have the same rights to private school education as congress’ members.”
I don’t understand why Catholic schools have been slow to become charter schools. More than a few Evangelical pastors have used public dollars to create Christian schools. In former Congressman Floyd Flake’s church in Queens, New York, for instance, the students study in a church-leased building and walk across a hallway to get religious instruction at hours carefully scheduled by the charter schools’ administrators – not incidentally, usually people of the pastor’s congregation. While some may rail against this arrangement, it appears that President Obama is inclined to turn a deaf ear to nay-sayers. The separation of church and state will be maintained, but faith-based educational values will be supported.
I have lived in the Brooklyn Diocese where this innovation has taken place as well as in other dioceses where it has not. It may be that the arrangements in Brooklyn will prove unworkable, so we should not rush to judgment. On the other hand, if a model for such conversion to charter schools is successful, it would take pressure off the Catholic laity to support parish schools by donations alone.
Some Catholics will suggest that a charter school arrangement is surrender to secularism. I have known bishops and Catholic school officials appointed by bishops who adopt a “Full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes!” mentality. The requirement to cover the classroom crucifix or take down the poster with a picture of the Blessed Mother becomes an insurmountable insult. Some say that by promoting the “Catholic” part of Catholic schools, the “right kind” of children will continue to choose Catholic education. God bless them for their idealism, but should the Catholic faithful be forced to pay for it?
Latinos and Latinas, the largest ethnic segment in U.S. Catholicism would be the primary beneficiaries of a switch to charter school funding for parochial schools, and since we are the future of the Church, it seems to me that President Obama’s open door should not be so quickly shut. What is our priority? Is it Catholic symbols on the walls or Catholic students and their education? Bless President Obama for answering our prayers.