WASHINGTON—Most mornings, Sister Owen Patricia Bonner, principal of Holy Name School here, stands outside welcoming arriving students and chatting up parents and grandparents dropping off their children. The spontaneous interaction energizes her for the day. When she asks parents how they're doing, they invariably respond, “I'm blessed, Sister, just blessed,” she says.

That's saying something in the neighborhood in which Holy Name resides.

Many Holy Name students come from single-parent homes; a few have one or both parents in prison and are raised by grandparents or other relatives. For some, going to school means the only chance they'll get all day for a hot meal, a warm room and a little attention and supervision.

Sister Owen says that, for Holy Name parents and guardians, getting their children into a Catholic school means real hope for the future. The first thing students learn is that their parents and teachers will not allow them to become just another statistic. Teachers at Holy Name find the most common excuse boys give for not doing their math homework is not expecting to live long enough to balance a checkbook. That excuse, says Sister Owen, is only dispelled with great determination and optimism.

Close Call

How bad would the educational crisis be if not for the dedicated, under-funded, private religious and secular schools that take some of the pressure off public education? Washington almost found out in 1997, when several of its inner-city Catholic school were nearly closed.

In January of that year, the Archdiocese of Washington, through an initiative called the City Center Consortium, took direct financial responsibility for eight inner-city schools that had lost the financial support of their parishes when the neighborhood base fled to the suburbs with its parishioners.

Cardinal James Hickey believed that schools such as Holy Name, Assumption, St. Cyprian and Sacred Heart are lifelines to children in the District of Columbia. Today, 40% of the budget of the cardinal's capital appeal is dedicated to Catholic education and a large portion of that to keeping these schools open.

But the diocese isn't alone in sacrificing to see that children have educational choice. With 56% of parents living below the $15,000 poverty line, a private education is a great financial burden. Families who send their children to schools like Holy Name can expect to pay $2,600 a year per child.

While the District of Columbia can afford to spend more than $9,100 per public-school student, the Archdiocese of Washington spends just a third of that. New teachers in the public schools can expect to earn $30,000, plus a signing bonus; base pay for Holy Name's teachers by contrast is a mere $20,351 this year. Despite this disproportion in funding, Catholic school students there outperform their public school counterparts on national tests by 72%.

What accounts for the discrepancy? Religion.

There is no litmus test for hiring teachers. Nor are non-Catholics students barred. In fact, only 25% of Holy Name's students are Catholic. But the curriculum bristles with a Catholic mission: theology classes and art projects with religious themes are common features. Parents don't seem to mind. They chose religious schools in full knowledge of their methods and seem unconcerned that the Catholic faith might “rub off” on their kids. In fact, several children every year are baptized and others attend evening catechism classes.

Many more parents want to send their children to private schools, particularly religious ones, and would if not for the cost. Because religion is an indispensable component of Catholic schools, the prospect of a voucher system could be either a blessing or a curse. Even limited government funding would take much of the pressure off inner-city schools and allow more parents to act on their desire. But state funding offered with the caveat of a compromised religious mission would take away the primary agent of the schools' success, along with their essential identity.

Religious-school teachers and principals often work for low wages out of a personal sense of mission. Sister Owen says the greatest strain in her job is training new teachers only to see them become frustrated and overwhelmed and move on after just one year. When hiring, she has to look for the spark that separates those who see teaching as a job and those who are moved by a higher purpose.

Students here are motivated. They know something special is going on at Holy Name. Unruly students are scolded by their classmates. Back talk and shirking homework might be typical at public schools, but at Holy Name older students remind new students, “You can't do that here.” Recently, one problem child was about to be expelled for disruption and bad temper. Several of the girls in the fourth-grade class approached the principal and asked if they might arrange a group confrontation to set the problem straight.

In fact, only one punishment seems necessary at Holy Name: Order is maintained by threatening immediate suspension. Students come to feel that the worst punishment is being kept away from the classroom. At the end of each day, and at the end of the school year, many of Sister Owen's children don't want to go home. At Holy Name, and other inner-city religious schools, these children find peace, order and love. No wonder parents speak of being “blessed.”

Jason Boffetti is project coordinator for the Washington, D.C.-based Faith and Reason Institute.