To the Editor:
I wrote an op-ed for the South Philly Review (“Going out of business,” Oct. 15, 2009) about the impact of the growing number of public charter schools on the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s school system. Under then-Archbishop Justin Rigali, we saw the first of many school closings and mergers. I wrote that there were of course other causes for this decline, but a look at today’s numbers confirms my prediction that the proliferation of charter schools has played a revolutionary role in changing the landscape of Catholic education and parish life.
By April of ’11, Archbishop Charles Chaput had announced the closing not only of 40-plus parish schools, many in South Philly, but also a list of 12 parish mergers.
Chaput announced three additional mergers in West Philly Jan. 8, ’13. The number of parishes has dropped from 267 to 253. That same day published reports listed enrollment figures for the archdiocese at 59,510 (down from 105,000 in ’00); the district at 148,645 (down from 197,999 in ’01); and charters at 59,411 (up from 16,510 in ’01).
Presently there are 84 city charter schools. The district’s superintendent William Hite mentioned in his Action Plan adding more charters plus a district-run cyber school. He shows no intention of slowing down the charter revolution.
One of the main reasons Catholic families transfer their children to charter schools is to save tuition, which continues to rise due to declining enrollment — causing a vicious cycle.
Charters also tempt parents with a quasi-private school atmosphere: Uniforms, tough admission standards and a tendency to dismiss any student who exhibits serious behavior or academic problems. But, charter schools were originally designed for the sole purpose of being laboratories of innovation and best teaching practice, similar to old-fashioned “demonstration” schools. While they do have more independence, they are still required to teach the same curriculum and give the same state tests as regular public schools.
Charters are usually run by private managers instead of the more transparent district. Every CEO hired by the School Reform Commission has encouraged their unfettered expansion.
Sharing became competition; discrimination the method; profit the motive; and all at taxpayers’ expense.
The district meanwhile has its own magnet schools to attract motivated families with talented children. These special admissions schools include Girard Academic Music Program, 2136 Ritner St., where prospective students must audition. Other special admissions schools include Masterman, ranked as the best high school in the state. Thousands of students apply for only a few seats. They must have all A’s and no discipline record whatsoever. Schools like these are essentially elite college preparatory schools.
Many people applaud all of this competition and choice for students as if it is the best thing since cat’s whiskers, and as long as their children are part of the chosen. But look at the bottom line. Both public and parochial school systems are slowly being deconstructed thanks in part to the charter school phenomenon. And even though Hite has admitted they are reaching a “saturation point” he still has plans to add more, while proposing to close 37 district schools for, what else, declining enrollment.
What effect is all this having on parish life? Churches depend on having a strong population of active Catholic families to remain solvent. The bonding of home, school and church is often generational. Parishes anchor neighborhoods in much the same way as local public schools. Chipping away at that infrastructure is bound to have consequences.
Many who read this will cite the Church’s costly legal battles as a huge factor in so many closings. Perhaps, but we must also conclude that the “school choice” movement ironically plays a heavy role in all this upheaval.
Gloria C. Endres
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