- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 24, 2008

President Bush, at a White House summit today, pushed the idea of providing federal funding to help inner-city faith-based schools that are struggling financially or closing, calling them “a critical national asset” that provide children from low-income families with valuable education.

“We have an interest in the health of these institutions,” Mr. Bush told government leaders, university researchers and educators from schools of various faiths who are attending the daylong White House Summit on Inner-City Children and Faith-Based Schools.

Mr. Bush and his supporters aimed to bring attention to the financial struggle of inner-city faith-based schools.

From 2000 to 2006, nearly 1,200 inner city faith-based schools closed, displacing about 425,000, many of whom are minority students, according to White House officials.

Mr. Bush called on summit participants to come up with “good ideas” to fund and save such schools, including business partnerships, private philanthropy and removing state laws that prohibit public funds from going to faith-based schools. He also called for a “commitment” from the federal government.

The president touted a program he proposed in his State of the Union called “Pell Grants for Kids.” The $300 million proposal would provide scholarships to about 75,000 children from low-income families to attend schools of their choice, including faith-based schools.

Key Democrats on Capitol Hill have opposed the idea, so it”s unlikely to advance.

Mr. Bush also called for the continuation of the federally-funded D.C. school choice program, which faces criticism. The program is in high demand by D.C. parents, which “says to me we ought to expand the program not kill the program,” Mr. Bush said to applause.

In his speech, Mr. Bush also mentioned the contentious No Child Left Behind law as proof that “we haven”t given up on public schools; quite the contrary.”

Meanwhile, Catholic schools make up much of the faith-based school closings. A recent report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute found that about 1,300 Catholic schools have closed since 1990, mostly in inner cities, displacing some 300,000 students.

The Archdiocese of Washington is turning seven of its Catholic schools into public charter schools.

Karl Zinsmeister, Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy, said one of the main problems is that, because of demographic changes, these inner-city faith-based schools mostly serve poor families who can’t afford the high tuition needed to run the schools. And government aid to these schools is blocked, with a few narrow exceptions, he said.

Speakers at yesterday”s summit praised religious-affiliated schools as a rich and often overlooked resource that sets high standards, helps raise the academic achievement of poor students and minority students and changes the culture of neighborhoods.

William Jeynes, education professor from California State University, outlined data he collected that found religious-affiliated schools help poor and minority students perform better academically than public schools.

Mr. Jeynes” analysis of several available studies on the issue finds that religious schools on average reduce the achievement gap between black and white students by 25 percent, and the gap between wealthier students and poorer students by 25 percent.

Examining 12th grade students, Mr. Jeynes found that black and Hispanic students attending religious schools outperformed their black and Hispanic peers in public schools by 8.2 percent in reading, 8.3 percent in math and 8.3 percent in social studies.

“The data I”m presenting really need a very hard look,” he said. “We have an opportunity … to really make a difference as we encourage and espouse the flourishing of private religious schools.”

The recent Fordham report argued that vouchers are not a “panacea” to the inner-city Catholic school problem, noting that voucher programs in Milwaukee and the District haven”t helped the Catholic schools there.

Joseph P. Viteritti, director of the graduate program in urban affairs at Hunter College, said he is “not optimistic” about the chances of public policy shifting in order to allow widespread voucher programs. He said the future of faith-based inner-city schools will rely on private philanthropy.

Joshua Carter, an 18-year-old high school senior at Archbishop Carroll High School in the District, began attending the Catholic high school in 10th grade after years at a public school. He said his grade point average was 3.5, but “dropped quickly” when he enrolled at Archbishop Carroll, because of the rigor of the classes there.

“I pulled it back up,” said Mr. Carter, who plans to attend the University of Pittsburgh next year and major in mechanical engineering.

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