Religion A Big Part Of The Charter School Debate

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At least a thousand Catholic schools have closed nationwide in the past decade because of overwhelming operating costs. The archdiocese of Washington, D.C., recently decided to remodel seven of its schools into public charters, hoping to save them from financial ruin. But critics say the restructuring violates the First Amendment and the separation of Church and State. NPR Education Correspondent Claudio Sanchez and Patricia Weitzel-O'neill, the superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Washington, discuss the sensitivities of religious-backed charter schools.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And speaking of parochial schools we're going to look at another element of the charter school movement, how it connects with more traditional parochial or religious schools. Last year, the local school officials in Washington D.C. and the local Archdiocese agreed to transform seven financially strapped public schools into public charter schools. Joining us to talk more about this is NPR education correspondent Claudio Sanchez and Patricia Weitzel-O'Neill. She's the superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Washington and she worked to remake seven of those Catholic schools in D.C. into charter schools.

Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Thank you.

Ms. PATRICIA WEITZEL-O'NEILL (Superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Washington): Thank you.

MARTIN: Patricia, if I could start with you. How did the Archdiocese come to the decision to take these seven schools and to turn them into charter schools as opposed to just closing them, which is what happens - what has happened in some places around the country?

Ms. WEITZEL-O'NEILL: Actually it is what traditionally has happened here and in other parts of the country. I think in the spring of 2007, the Archdiocese was faced with that question, should - city consortium schools. And after a very intensive study beginning in the spring of 2007, we came forward with the recommendation of a task force of about 45 people that probably what we needed to do is look for a charter provider for seven of the schools, have four remain consortium schools, and one a parish-based school.

And it was in our - the intention of that recommendation was to be certain that the children who are currently in those schools would have the gift of education continuing in that same building, that the teachers would continue in that building and that we would be able to provide the continuity and predictability that is so important to stabilizing an educational environment for these children.

MARTIN: Now this was controversial on a number of fronts, and I'm going to ask each of you to talk about what the controversies were in different communities. Patricia, in the Catholic community, this was - this was not without controversies. I understand that the Catholic Education Foundation generally opposes these moves. They feel that dilutes the value of a Catholic education. Even though that, as I understand in the district, most of the students attending these particular schools were probably not Catholic.

Ms. WEITZEL-O'NEILL: Yes, the schools are Catholic. Our Archdiocese in schools in the district are Catholic. The majority of the students in the inter city schools are not Catholic. But the important thing to understand is that the children were who we have to think of first. And so the question is do you close the school and allow the children to return to a public failing school or do you do something to keep that building intact, keep that high quality education available to those families, and make it possible for them to continue in a quality program that's values-based and that will in fact give them the hope that they need for the future. Yes, it was controversial because we were closing a Catholic school, we were closing seven Catholic schools. And whenever a Catholic school closes it's very difficult for Catholics and many others in our society who have benefited so greatly from Catholic education.

MARTIN: I want to hear more about that, but Claudio I want to - I'm bringing you in on the other side of the equation this was - this decision was not universally embraced by some D.C. officials or community folks. Tell me about that side of the ledger.

SANCHEZ: Well, I think there were so many unanswered questions about how this would work so it obviously raised a lot of skepticism, let me…

MARTIN: On who's part?

SANCHEZ: On everybody's part. The National Catholic Education Association describing the stories that we did, charter schools have been somewhat of a threat to Catholic schools because they do take kids who would otherwise be paying tuition at Catholic schools.

On the other hand, this really opened up the door to a really interesting experiment. I mean, this - D.C. to this day is considered ground zero for this - I wouldn't call it a trend exactly, but this new way to not just save and re-open Catholic schools but to really contribute to a greater mix of charter schools.

Keep in mind, and here's what I wanted to really stress, that the backdrop to this is that over the last nine years, 1,000 public - Catholic schools, I'm sorry - 1,000 Catholic schools in this country have closed in the last nine years. The peak was back in 1965, I believe, 5.5-million Catholic-school kids, 13,000 schools. That's way, way down today.

So now we have this charter school movement that has said to all comers: Come and experiment with this new hybrid system of schools, privately run, publicly funded. And I think Archbishop Donald Wuerl, who had done this in Philadelphia, came to this town and said, what an opportunity. And sure enough, I mean, the seven schools that were converted were schools that were losing a lot of money.

I mean, the school that I visited had a $3-million budget deficit, and that was because it had low enrollment, and the other is because most of the parents who went to that school, as you were pointing out, were non-Catholic, but they were paying, or at least were expected to pay, $4,500 tuition. And very few of them could meet that kind of tuition.

So this allowed the diocese, I believe, to say, okay, instead of closing them down, why don't we just make a deal with the city? And sure enough, though they have lost their Catholic identity, these schools, since they retained most of their staff, they took in a lot more new kids, but essentially the parents were really, really supporters and great believers in the values education that they were receiving at these schools, stuck around.

And at Saint Cyprian, the Holy Comfort of Saint Cyprian on Capitol Hill, the school that I followed for a year, 96-percent of the parents voted for the conversion. Most of them were skeptical of taking in new kids, the so-called troublemakers. One parent told me, the minute you take God out of our school, you're going to invite the devil.

Well, I'm not so sure that that happened, but what happened was that it really convinced parents that, short of closing the school, I mean this was really the only option they had.

MARTIN: We could have a really good theological conversation about inviting the devil in, but…

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But if you would talk about - you talk about the loss of Catholic identity. That would have to be, I think, most visible in the school building, had to be transformed. Crucifixes had to come down. Objects of worship had to be taken away.

SANCHEZ: Morning prayer.

MARTIN: Morning prayer?

Ms. WEITZEL-O'NEILL: Yes.

MARTIN: What was that like for the people who worked there? Because it's also my understanding that many of the staff remained along with the students.

Ms. WEITZEL-O'NEILL: I think it's very important to, you know, to pick up on the comments that were just made. We have been experiencing, in Catholic education, the closing of Catholic schools in the inner city for the last 10, 15 years. And every time that happens, it's very, very difficult. But what we have come to accept and realize is that people move, things change, and the buildings, they stay the same.

The most important thing to the church, particularly the church in the Archdiocese of Washington, is to make sure those buildings continue to be used in a way that meets our commitment to social justice and to the serving of others in our city. And so, every time a building is transformed, even for public use and we have to remove the symbols of Catholicism, we do that knowing that the building will continue to be used to serve others. And that really helps make the difference for many people.

MARTIN: But is that hard?

Ms. WEITZEL-O'NEILL: Yes, it's very hard. I think it is very difficult for all of us to acknowledge that these schools, which have given more to this country than I would suggest many other forms of education. And I think the indicator is to simply look around at the people who are giving back to society today. From the president of the United States to - many of the members of our Congress, including Senator Durbin and others, those people are all the products of Catholic education.

MARTIN: And to that end, the church doesn't have control over the curriculum, but the church did choose the charter to take over the schools. What was that process, as briefly as you can? You were looking…

Ms. WEITZEL-O'NEILL: Absolutely. There were really three major components we were looking for, and we interviewed a number of charter providers. Most importantly, somebody who would continue the high academic standards and academically rigorous program that the families had become accustomed to. Secondly, the provider, it was important, would provide a values-based education that continued the emphasis on self-respect, recognizing you're -special and that you can do anything, giving these children hope. And teaching them how to give back and the concepts of social justice.

MARTIN: But from a religious perspective, values come from faith. You know, values come from a belief in a higher - you know what I mean? Can you really separate out the values from the faith?

Ms. WEITZEL-O'NEILL: Yes. I think when you're teaching values, I think there are many, many people who will say to you, even in public education today, you'll see the values code posted in a number of our public schools. You can teach values. It's an important part of citizenship. And without values, how can we have the kinds of citizens we want in this country?

MARTIN: Claudio, got a minute and a half left. What is your sense, as a person who's followed this process closely in this community, what is your sense of how this transition has gone?

SANCHEZ: Well, as Archbishop Wuerl pointed out, he said look, we're giving - this is a gift to the city. This is, we're giving seven high-performing schools to the city. But you know, there's a controversy, at least among parents, about - because the standards and the testing and all that that has to happen in the classroom is now tied to the D.C. curriculum, now tied to D.C. standards, which are pretty mediocre. And I think one concern from parents, if we look at this from a parent's view, is you know, are we going to water down what we used to have here? And that's where the dust has not settled. This relatively new.

There really isn't any other precedent or at least any other indication that it's happened anywhere else in the country in terms of kind of, you know, kind of pseudo-conversions, not like they have in D.C. And so the question is still out there: Will the new mix of kids, will the new mix of academic programs really help these families maintain - or the schools maintain the kind of standards that we're used to.

One other point is that these schools experience an enormous budget increase. I mean, this is costing the city of D.C. over $60 million. The other is that with the money that these schools now have, I mean, salaries at schools went up something like 20 percent. They were able to bring in, for the first time, you know, full-time music teachers, drama teachers, a lot of perks that, you know, these schools couldn't afford before. And so there's an infusion of money that I think is certainly going to help these schools prove that they can maintain the rigorous academic standards.

MARTIN: Claudio Sanchez covers education for NPR. Patricia Weitzel-O'Neill is the superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Washington. She worked to transition seven of the district's 12 Catholic schools into charter schools. If you want more links to Claudio's reporting, we'll have them on our Web site, the TELL ME MORE page at npr.org. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

SANCHEZ: Thank you.

Ms. WEITZEL-O'NEILL: Thank you.

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