Federal Policy Undercuts, Supports Urban Catholic Schooling. All At Once

I wrote briefly last week about the “Pell Grants for Kids” proposal from the State of the Union Address. One of the justifications for this new initiative, President Bush argued, is the growing number of private and faith-based schools in inner cities that are closing, leaving poor kids with fewer alternatives to failing public schools.

Yet federal policy may be contributing to the demise of Catholic schooling in inner cities. Today, Education Week reports on research [annoying registration required] suggesting that charter schools (opened with the strong endorsement of the Bush administration) draw students disproportionately from Catholic schools, particularly now that these schools, no longer able to rely upon the very cheap labor of teaching nuns, must charge more tuition to pay lay teachers. From the article:

Rev. Ronald J. Nuzzi, the director of the Alliance for Catholic Education leadership program at the University of Notre Dame, … has called charters “one of the biggest threats to Catholic schools in the inner city, hands down.”

“An unintended consequence—that’s probably the most politically sensitive way to put it,” Father Nuzzi said about the erosion of Catholic-school enrollment. “For the most part, when you offer an alternative to the mainstream [public] school free of charge, it can be a threat to Catholic schools, which charge tuition.”

It would be refreshing if those drafting federal policy in the supposed interest of poor kids could get their stories (and their programs) straight. If at least part of the story of declining enrollment in Catholic schools is parent choice, what business is it of the federal government to subsidize those schools? If “choice” — without the infusion of new resources — is key to spurring public schools to improve, why wouldn’t we trust market forces to work in whatever is now going on with urban Catholic schools?

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