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?

Pell Grants for Kids

In the State of the Union Address last night, Bush proposed a new “Pell Grants for Kids” program that would provide $300 million for poor chidren to attend private and religious schools, just as the “regular” Pell Grant program has enabled poor college students to “reach their full potential” via tuition support.

And the blogosphere has begun to weigh in:

The Mirror of Justice applauds the program as potentially stemming the closure of inner-city faith-based schools due for “financial reasons”, schools that he sees as providing vital alternative to children in chronically under-performing schools.

Other bloggers are far more critical:

The Carpet Bagger Report notes the obvious: that this is a voucher program that can’t be called a voucher program because the term “vouchers” does not poll well. He continues:

it’s ironic that Bush talked about the success of the Pell Grant program in helping “low-income college students realize their full potential,” given that his administration has repeatedly scaled back funding for regular ol’ Pell Grants.

The International Reading Association draws on the NYT’s reporting (as does The Education Policy Blog) that critics of the proposal wonder why, if NCLB is so successful, poor kids would need a program like this.

Greg Palast notes that given that there are 15 million poor children in this country, the $300 million for this program would provide only $20 per child. Accordingly,

George Bush’s alma mater, Phillips Andover Academy, tells us their annual tuition is $37,200. The $20 “Pell Grant for Kids,” as the White House calls it, will buy a poor kid about 35 minutes of this educational dream. So they’ll have to wake up quickly.

And The Engaged Intellectual asks whether this new initiative is intended to divert attention from the failures in NCLB in her scathing critique of each.

I’ll compile more here as bloggers continue to weigh in.