Tuesday, May 23, 2006

We need vouchers now

Urban Decay
May 19, 2006

There is less sorrow at Our Lady of Sorrows these days. In March, the Manhattan grade school was placed on a list of 14 schools that the Catholic Archdiocese of New York was considering closing. But a few weeks later, after protests from parents, the archdiocese decided that Our Lady would be spared.

We couldn't be happier, but we can't help wondering: How long can the Catholic Church keep this up? For the past 30 years, it has seen a shift of its parishioners from cities to suburbs, a decline in the ranks of its clergy and huge budget shortfalls. Still, it has remained a beacon in the stormy waters of urban education.

Catholic schools produce results far better than their public counterparts for a fraction of the cost. On last year's New York State reading and math tests, fourth and eighth graders in Catholic schools scored 7% to 10% higher than public-school students. The public per-pupil cost in New York is about $15,000 annually; Catholic school tuition is about $3,000.

Many of us had hoped that the school-choice movement would have spread further by now, allowing poor parents to use tax-funded vouchers at these excellent Catholic schools. It just hasn't happened. There have been a few victories: The Cleveland voucher program, ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court in 2002, has expanded to include all of Ohio. And Washington D.C.'s pilot program has put vouchers' benefits under the noses of our nation's leaders. But defeats elsewhere -- including the Florida Supreme Court's decision to yank the 800 voucher-funded students out of private schools -- suggest a long road ahead.

Urban Catholic schools may not be able to wait. Last year, the Brooklyn Archdiocese closed 22 schools. St. Louis closed eight. Newark has shuttered 10 in the past two years. In Philadelphia, the archdiocese has closed or consolidated more than 20 schools in the past six years.

There is no mystery as to why. In the Boston area, two-thirds of the Catholic population live outside of the city, but two-thirds of the schools are inside it. Suburban Catholic parents want more schools nearby. Strapped for cash, the leaders of the church are being forced to choose. Though they see it as part of their duty to help non-Catholics -- especially poor minorities -- they can't ignore the needs of their own parishioners.

As it is, the church cannot afford to pay its teachers what they deserve. In the past, it could rely on priests or nuns to bear most of the teaching burden. But now the church has trouble finding a clergy member for each parish. A former lay teacher we know at Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx was getting by on $30,000 a year in 2002. He recalls how "10 or 12 young teachers would leave every year." They all "enjoyed [teaching there] very much, but just couldn't afford to stay." New York public-school teachers, by contrast, earn a median income of more than $50,000, as well as a housing subsidy. Oh, and they have job security for life.

Chicago is one of the few cities not to have an urban Catholic school close this year. That is due in part to the Big Shoulders Fund, a charity independent of the church whose purpose is to support Catholic schools. Last year, Big Shoulders gave almost $9 million to the 93 Catholic schools inside the city (20% of whose students live below the poverty line). According to Joshua Hale, the organization's executive director, the fund's donors -- both Catholics and non-Catholics -- think: "I'm a citizen of this city, and I believe we need an alternative to the public school system."

But the local government does not hear them. Chicago's Mayor Richard Daley has launched "Renaissance 2010," a plan to raise tens of millions of private dollars and pour them into 100 new public schools. Mr. Hale is understandably baffled. "We have a fantastic system of schools already," he notes. Why subsidize still further a public system that has failed poor kids time and again?


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