A New Charter For Catholic Schools?

Like their counterparts around the country, New York’s Catholic schools face a crisis that figures to get worse in the near future. Enrollment, already in decline, very likely will take a hit as parents find they can’t afford tuition. But as the student population shrinks, parishes are forced to raise tuition to make up for the shortfall. It is an unfortunate cycle.

The Diocese of Brooklyn, which includes Queens, has closed more than 30 neighborhood schools over the last five years, including 14 slated for closing in June. The Archdiocese of New York, which covers Manhattan, the Bronx, Staten Island and several upstate counties, has closed more than a dozen since 2007. More closings are expected. That could mean a huge influx of new students in overcrowded public schools.

City Hall and the Diocese of Brooklyn have come up with a creative solution. Under a plan announced last week, four of the Catholic schools designated for closing will be converted to charter schools funded by the city but managed privately, as all charter schools are. Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn described the plan as a “lifeline” that will avoid the displacement of some students and will make use of perfectly good school buildings.

It goes without saying that religious instruction will not take place in the new charter schools, and all religious symbols will be covered or removed. This is not a furtive attempt to get around church-state issues. Rather, it is a solution to a difficult problem: How can the public school system absorb hundreds if not thousands of students from shuttered Catholic schools?

The charter approach required a good deal of courage on the part of Mr. DiMarzio. His colleagues around the country have been extremely reluctant to work with charter schools as a matter of self-preservation. Urban parents looking for alternatives to traditional public schools—many of them non-Catholic—have become an important part of the Catholic school mission. The advent of charter schools has given these parents a new option, one that requires no tuition.

Mr. DiMarzio clearly has decided to treat charter schools as potential partners rather than rivals. That decision, if replicated nationally, could have a profound effect on urban school system, parochial and public. It could also serve as a template for administrators of other endangered private or religious schools in New York.

The four proposed charter schools would accommodate about 1,000 students, many of whom would otherwise enroll in local public schools. The potential overcrowding and other disruptions will be avoided if the plan wins approval in Albany. The mayor cautioned that the proposal remains a work in progress. The important point is that Mike Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein are working together with the Catholic Church for the benefit of thousands of New York children.