INDIANAPOLIS — A new report from the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice suggests that Catholic schools struggling to stay open with declining enrollments can stay afloat if they “convert” to public charter schools.

But, the report stresses, if Catholic schools are going to be able to compete with this charter-school challenge, private-choice funding options like vouchers and tax credits are essential.

The report’s authors examined Catholic schools that closed and became charter schools in the Archdioceses of Indianapolis, Washington and Miami. The authors said they found that the new charter schools’ enrollment immediately increased and that more minority students also began attending those schools.

“It seems that what these charter schools are able to do is mimic the positive effects of Catholic schools, but they are able to do so at no cost to the students’ families,” Michael McShane, one of the report’s two authors, told the Register.

The Friedman report underscores several key trends in the educational marketplace as it relates to Catholic education. In many inner-city areas across the country, Catholic schools are struggling to stay open because parents have difficulty affording the tuition. Over the past decade, economic and demographic factors have forced hundreds of Catholic elementary and secondary schools to close in traditional Catholic urban neighborhoods.

From 1979 to 2011, the number of Catholic schools in the United States fell from 9,640 to 6,841, according to the U.S. Department of Education.


Struggle to Compete

As the supply of Church-affiliated schools continues to shrink, charter schools — which are public but managed privately and provide more freedom for administrators than the traditional public-school model — are  grabbing a larger share of the market.

In some cities, Catholic schools struggle to match the appeal of charter schools, which charge no tuition and often replicate some, though not all, of the favorable aspects of a traditional Catholic education.

“It’s very difficult to compete with free, particularly when they’re trying to imitate you,” said Nashville Dominican Sister Mary John Fleming, the executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Catholic Education.

Father Ron Nuzzi, director of the Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program for the Alliance for Catholic Education at the University of Notre Dame, said charter schools are “hands down” one of the biggest threats to Catholic schools in the inner city.

“How do you compete with an alternative that doesn’t cost anything?” Father Nuzzi asked.


Clarifying the Mission

The Friedman report raises an increasingly urgent question for Catholic educators: How can they convince parents that a classic Catholic education is still worth the investment? The answer, according to several Catholic educators, is to clarify the unique mission of Catholic schools.

“Catholic schools are still highly respected, and Catholic schools produce extremely well-prepared students, not just academically, but morally and spiritually,” said Patrick Lofton, the executive vice president for the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA).

Yet the advantage of Catholic education is not always clear to parents struggling to cover costs in a weak economy, and that poses a growing challenge to Catholic educators, according to James Cultrara, the director of education for the New York State Catholic Conference.

“Charter schools are really supplanting school choices in New York, not supplementing them,” Cultrara said.

Because New York state does not offer school vouchers or scholarship tax credits to help low-income parents afford Catholic or private education, Cultrara told the Register that charter schools contribute to an unlevel playing field tilted heavily in favor of public education.

“Seventy-five Catholic schools have closed in New York in the last five years, and it’s not rocket science as to why that’s happening,” Cultrara said.


Vouchers and Tax Credits

The Friedman report makes the case that private-school choice programs, such as vouchers and scholarship tax credits, can stem the tide of private-school closures and prevent charter schools from squeezing their Catholic and private counterparts out of the market.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 27 states, including Washington D.C., provide some form of public assistance for parents eager to place their children in private schools.

In Washington, a scholarship-voucher program has helped many low-income families afford a Catholic education, said Thomas Burnford, the secretary of education for the Archdiocese of Washington.

“It transforms the lives of those students,” Burnford told the Register.

“We are extremely supportive of legislation being enacted at the state or local level that assures fair parental school choice and full access to our schools,” Lofton said, adding that the NCEA’s public-policy director works with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and state-level officials to advocate for school-choice programs.

“Parents should be given a latitude of choice as to where they want to send their children,” Lofton said.

However, vouchers and scholarship tax credits are rarely available to all the families who would prefer Catholic schools, and such programs are not available to the majority of parents who live in states or cities that bar the use of public funds for tuitions at private Catholic and religious schools.

 In New York, Cultrara said, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, did not support a recent scholarship tax-credit bill that had the support of the majorities in both chambers of the New York Legislature.

“It’s going to become more and more difficult for Catholic schools … and tuition-paying families throughout the state, and I think that’s tragic,” Cultrara said.


Steep Enrollment Drop

Absent any mechanisms to lower tuition or help parents afford it, charter schools are in a position to take over a growing portion of the Catholic-school market share, the Friedman report said. In the Catholic schools examined in the Friedman report, average enrollment in the seven years leading up to the schools’ closure had dropped from 299 students to 153 students. Then, two years after they re-opened as charter schools, their enrollments had climbed back up to 242 students.

The shift from a Catholic administration to a charter-school administration also marked a jump in minority student enrollment.  Five years before they “switched” to charter schools, the percentage of enrolled minority students fluctuated between 70% and 80%. Two years after the change,  minority students accounted for 93% of the student bodies.

“The data documents the fact that this is a viable option for struggling Catholic schools,” McShane of the Friedman Foundation concluded.

However, several Catholic educators told the Register that a Catholic school cannot “convert” to a charter school and maintain its Catholic identity and mission because both represent two different models of education.

“A Catholic school ceases to exist when it becomes a charter,” said Beth Blaufus, the president of Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington.

“A charter school is a public school,” Sister Mary added. “It doesn’t have a religious component to it. That’s an important distinction.”


New Revenue Streams

However, faced with the choice of empty school buildings or renting space for new charter schools, Catholic education officials in Washington, Indianapolis and Miami found new revenue streams they could put back into their operations.

“Isn’t it better to provide something than nothing at all?” the NCEA’s Lofton asked. “The reality is that these dioceses are being creative in their approach and trying to find some way to provide a solid education for kids who are impoverished.”

Blaufus told the Register that she believes charter and Catholic schools can coexist. In a climate where school choice is enabled, Blaufus said her school regularly receives applicants from charter schools. She also said that the existence of other educational options can actually help her school’s Catholic identity.

“For decades, Catholic schools appealed to families simply as an alternative to public schools,” Blaufus said. “Now, there are alternatives, so what sets us apart? It must be faith that is a joyous, relevant anchor to all we do and an answer to parents’ and kids’ deepest anxieties and hopes.”

Sister Mary said the rise of charter schools should motivate Catholic school leaders to better articulate their unique identity.

“We haven’t necessarily told that story very well,” she said. “We used to be, sometimes, the only game in town. Well, we aren’t the only game in town anymore.”

Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.