Plan to Save D.C. Catholic Schools Controversial

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The cash-strapped Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., wants to turn seven of its inner-city schools into public charter schools. The only problem is the schools would have to relinquish their religious identity.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

Over the last eight years, more than 1,000 Catholic schools in this country have closed. They couldn't afford to stay open. Urban Catholic schools in particular can no long subsidize the growing number of low income students who enroll but cannot pay full tuition. Here in Washington D.C., half the city's 28 Catholic schools are in serious financial trouble. So the Archdiocese wants to turn seven of them into public charter schools. NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports on a move that's unprecedented, controversial, and painful.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Elisha Blessingale(ph) can't imagine starting the school day without a prayer.

ELISHA BLESSINGALE: Blessed are the poor in spirit.

CHILDREN: Blessed are the poor in spirit.

BLESSINGALE: For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

CHILDREN: For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

SANCHEZ: Blessingale has taught first grade for over 20 years at Holy Comforter/St. Cyprian, a small perish school in a mostly black working class neighborhood, a few blocks and yet a world away from the nation's capital.

BLESSINGALE: Wash me thoroughly from my iniquities and cleanse me from my sins.

SANCHEZ: Blessingale has been praying especially hard because by summer this school will be closed. Then, if all goes according to plan, it will reopen as a public charter school, stripped of its affiliation with the Catholic Church, with the same faculty and staff, but without the crucifixes and saints on classroom walls, without the religious instruction, and sadly, says Blessingale, without daily prayers.

BLESSINGALE: So the fact that the whole school sits up together in church as a church family, that will be something that I will - I will miss.

SANCHEZ: The plan to convert Holy Comforter/St. Cyprian and six other Catholic schools into public charter schools was conceived by the Archdiocese of Washington and its head, Archbishop Donald Wuerl.

DONALD WUERL: We were told by our finance people if we attempted to keep all of those schools open, we would have to in the next five years come up with nearly $55 million.

SANCHEZ: In the last five years, the financial losses at Holy Comforter/St. Cyprian alone totaled over $3 million. Here's why, says Wuerl. The Archdiocese spends about $7500 per student, but the most it can ask parents to pay in tuition is $4500.

WUERL: So for every student, the Archdiocese had to come up with some $3000 per student. And we simply ran out of money.

SANCHEZ: And Holy Comforter/St. Cyprian, parents say they understand that. But it's hardly a consolation for those who feel they're losing their school. Pamela Mills, a parish member, enrolled her daughter Eldora here six years ago.

PAMELA MILLS: We wanted her to have that faith-based education. From the time that she started here up until now, it's been good. And the sisters, they all know her. Everybody comes to me - oh, she - that child right there is gonna be a nun.

SANCHEZ: Mills' laugh gives way to a more serious, defiant tone. She says it bothers her to hear her parish priest, Monsignor Charles Pope, say that the school must relinquish its religious identity.

MILLS: I've even spoke with Father Pope about if there was some way that if some of the children wanted to attend mass somewhere in that school day, just you know, for the kids, just that religious part of it.

SANCHEZ: Father Pope says it's painful, but he has repeatedly explained to parents that once Holy Comforter/St. Cyprian becomes a publicly funded charter school, there can be no entanglement with religion.

CHARLES POPE: We have got to follow the rule of law. If we are able to provide religious instruction after school hours, that would have to be with very strict boundaries. But it is a very clear thing and I was very clear to communicate to the parishioners it will no longer be a Catholic school; it cannot be.

SANCHEZ: Again, most parents get that. Some though are still in the dark about what a charter school is, and what they've heard isn't good. Many charter schools in D.C. are unstable. Several have shut down not long after they opened, and most are not nearly as good academically as Catholic schools. Which is why some Catholic educators are also worried. Karen Ristau, president of the National Catholic Education Association, says this conversion business signals a troublesome trend.

KAREN RISTAU: I am concerned about the ripple effect of people thinking that when their Catholic school is in trouble, either for enrollment or financial reasons, charter schools is that automatic, A-number-one solution. It's not.

SANCHEZ: Ristau worries that the Archdiocese application for a charter will be seen as a back door to diverting public funds to schools that will test the First Amendment, the separation of church and state. Already in South Florida, a Hebrew language charter school is openly competing with schools run by synagogues. Arabic language charter schools with lose ties to Muslim organizations have popped up in California and New York.

RISTAU: If you're thinking it's a slippery slope to completely throwing out the First Amendment, no, I wouldn't want that. But every time I think it's clear, it gets muddier again.

SANCHEZ: Archbishop Donald Wuerl says he doesn't see a slippery slope. In fact, he says the Archdiocese is doing something wonderful. It's handing over seven high-performing well-run schools to a city with a chronic shortage of good schools. The budgets for all seven schools will grow significantly. Salaries for faculty and staff will increase. There will be more money for special education. The Archdiocese will make money by leasing the seven school buildings to the city. And best of all, says Wuerl, the conversion will help the Archdiocese fund it's remaining schools.

WUERL: So I think this is just the beginning, not of future conversions, this is the beginning of sustaining a healthy system of Catholic schools throughout the entire Archdiocese.

SANCHEZ: Over two-thirds of the parents at Holy Comforter/St. Cyprian have already voted in favor of the conversion, although some are still praying about it.

ARELIA: That's all you can do is pray. When there's not God in it, the devil get in it.

SANCHEZ: Arelia Hawkins has a niece at the school. She says she's afraid that when Holy Comfort/St. Cyprian opens its doors as a public charter school, it won't be as orderly and disciplined because it will have to take in kids with serious behavior problems and families that don't know the Lord; at least not yet, she says smiling.

HAWKINS: Evidently this was meant to happen. It's the way God wanted it to happen. He has the school being converted for a reason.

SANCHEZ: By the end of the week the Archdiocese will know whether the required two-thirds of parents at all seven schools voted in favor of the conversion. If they don't, they will close for good.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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