“School’s Out, Forever,” a recent article in The New York Times by David Gonzalez captures with great compassion the heartrending story surrounding the closing of St. Martin of Tours School in the Bronx. Gonzalez brings a unique perspective, having graduated from the school 40 years ago this month. He explains how the school offered a sanctuary in a neighborhood ravaged by “gang fights, racial unrest and crack wars.” In the midst of mayhem, the school managed to propel students to success. But its benefits were more than academic. The school built character and, through instruction and example, taught students how to live. Gonzalez remembers the “sacrifices made happily and gifts given freely by women religious,” recalling how “[t]hrough word and deed they taught us the works of mercy: to feed the poor, clothe the naked, and educate the ignorant.”
Unfortunately, the closing of priceless educational gems like St. Martin’s is playing out in cities across the country. In the Archdiocese of New York alone, 26 elementary schools are slated to shut down this month. The National Catholic Educational Association reports that the past decade has seen the number of Catholic schools in the country decline by 1,166 –- an astounding loss of opportunity for families and children.
Part of the narrative behind the closings has been the rise in charter schools. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that from 1999 to 2008, the number of students enrolled in public charter schools climbed from 340,000 to 1.4 million, while during roughly the same period (1999-2009) the number of students in private schools dropped from 6.0 million to 5.5 million. Charter schools gained students, and private schools lost them. Of course, enrollment demographics present a complicated scenario, and no one is suggesting a student-for-student transfer from private schools to charters. But in certain regions and communities, there is no question that some parents have swapped one sector for the other.
The problem is the trade is not an even one -- not for students, parents, or society. For starters, private schools have a history, a proven record of performance; they are not novice upstarts. Further, private schools are free of excessive government control that can stifle effectiveness and compromise a school’s unique identity. What’s more, private schools can establish a certain kind of culture and shared community that charter schools cannot. As David Gonzalez suggests, they strive to instill in students a sense of mission and service, a call to act selflessly for a greater good. The faith and values that explicitly drive so many private schools are simply off limits in charter schools.
Finally, there’s a major public policy distinction between the two sectors: the source of funding. Every student who switches from private to public represents a huge cost to taxpayers, so for any growth in charter schools at the expense of private schools the public foots the full bill. Perhaps that’s why, in this time of tight budgets, so many states are looking to expand genuine school choice by providing modest financial incentives to help parents select private schools, thereby easing the burden on neighborhood public schools and sparing taxpayers the full cost of educating the child. The bonus is that parents are provided proven, effective options –- the kind of life-changing opportunity that David Gonzalez had.