- The Washington Times - Monday, April 14, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

During this week’s much-anticipated papal visit, Pope Benedict is slated to deliver an unusual address to Catholic college and university presidents on Catholic education. His words may have unintentional relevance for the District of Columbia’s own Catholic-education questions, which are closely linked to the tides and turns of the city’s nascent charter schools.

At present, the Archdiocese of Washington faces much criticism for its proposal to convert seven Catholic schools into publicly funded nonreligious charters. Some Catholics question what they view as the archdiocese’s abdication of a key, historic role in education, while the D.C. Council and voices from the public-school system ask further questions about the finances. But Mayor Adrian Fenty and Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee seem favorably disposed and should push the plan to completion. It makes good sense for the city and the students, both to bolster the city’s charter-school alternatives and to save schools that educate students from mostly minority and lower-to-middle-income backgrounds.

In a city plagued with public-education problems as extensively as Washington is, the loss of these schools would decrease the options of families who already face significant limitations in one of the country’s worst-performing public-school systems. At least some of the financing questions reflect hostility toward the expansion of the District’s charter schools. But those who characterize the plan as Mayor Fenty’s “bailout” of the Catholic Church can at least be shown the numbers to suggest the plan is more like a bargain acquisition. Nationally, Catholic schools outperform their public counterparts and do so on much tighter budgets. These schools will no longer be “Catholic” — religious curricular components, Catholic names and other signs of the church will be stripped away. But they will retain many of the people and characteristics which drew families seeking alternatives to the public schools in the first place. If the schools close, the District will end up educating the students in any event, except — and this is perhaps key to the opposition — the educating will occur inside D.C. public schools, which the education establishment controls firmly.

The question of whether the archdiocese’s finances necessitate the move is of interest to Catholics who have posed worries about the future of Catholic education in the District. But the city must presume that Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl means what he says when he reports that a 5-year, $50 million operating deficit will require the schools’ closure absent this plan. The city must convert these Catholic schools into charters.


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