2009-02-27 / Columnists

The Rockaway Beat

Catholic Charter Schools Won't Fill The Bill For Many Parents

The plan to convert four parochial schools to public charter schools in order to save them from closing would seem problematic. I guess the success of the conversion process depends largely on why parents send their kids to parochial schools in the first place. If parents choose a parochial school because they believe it to be a safer, more controlled environment, then it might not matter at all that the religious education disappears. If, however, they send their kids to parochial school because they want a sound religious education, then the public charter cannot become a low-cost substitute.

The charter schools, for example, can no longer display religious iconography in the building. Teachers who do not hoe to the religious line can no longer be fired simply for that reason - a pregnant, unmarried teacher, for example, cannot be fired for her morals. Intelligent Design, or whatever they call creationism these days, cannot be taught in lieu of the hard science of evolution.

Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, told reporters, "There are real concerns about whether this is parochial school education by another name.

They can't airlift the entire school into the same place and call it a public school."

I spoke about this issue with five parochial school parents.

Two said that they originally sent their kids to St. Rose of Lima to keep them away from the danger at PS 225 and would certainly be interested in a public charter should that ever occur, because they were more interested in the safety issue than in a Catholic education.

The other three, however, said that the Catholic education was the reason they sent their children to a parochial school and they would transfer their children to another Catholic school should their present school ever become a public charter school.

Not a very scientific poll, but it probably represents the balance of how parents feel about the plan.

I see lots of problems.

For example, the city requires that sex education, including the use of condoms, be taught in the public school health curriculum. The issue is handled differently in the lower grades than in the upper grades, but none of the curriculum mandates would bring joy to the bishops or to strict Catholic parents.

The diocese has maneuvered around that problem in buildings that it leases to the Department of Education by mandating that the sex education portions of the curriculum be taught elsewhere. That will not work, however, when the building itself is a public charter school, even though the building is still owned by the diocese.

The Diocese will have to bite the bullet and accept sex education, something that it opposes on moral grounds.

For his part, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, who heads the Brooklyn Diocese, thinks that none of that will be a problem.

"We think that with charter schools, we can continue education," he said. "We can also maintain our value system."

When he was asked to explain the way that the Catholic value system could be maintained in a public forum, he was vague and would provide no specifics.

For example, would teachers hired for the charter school meet the standard for public school teachers? While public school teachers must be licensed by the state, parochial school teachers do not.

Will the parochial schools retain those teachers who are not licensed? They probably will not be able to do that, which means that many teachers will lose their jobs.

Will the charter retain teachers who do not live up to the morals clause that is written into many parochial school contracts?

'Tis a puzzlement.

Choosing students may also be a problem. Mayor Bloomberg, in making his proposal, said that the Catholic school students already in the school would get first choice to remain in the school. That flies in the face of charter school rules that call for a lottery among all those applying for the school. Running a charter school strictly with students chosen by religion, or by a religious institution, would also fly in the face of all that is expected of public charters.

Then, there is the fact that a state law prohibits the conversion of private schools to public charters, under the theory that charters, although independently operated, are funded by the taxpayers and therefore must be constitutional in nature.

It was drawn originally for just this kind of proposal, made by a Jewish mayor who is trying to curry favor with the Catholic voters prior to his run for a third term.

By the way, if you think that I am picking on Catholic parochial schools here, I am sure that the yeshivas will quickly get on board if it turns out that religious schools can get away with taking public money while retaining the emphasis on religion.

Can you imagine what would happen if the state legislature approves allowing Catholic schools to become public charters without doing the same for other private schools?

That's just not going to happen.

In fact, I can't imagine them going out on the limb for something so blatantly unconstitutional.

That is way out of their comfort zone.

There is one last constriction that will work against the proposal.

The law prohibits charters from being run "wholly or in part under the control or direction of any religious denomination."

Will the church turn control of the public charter running in a church building over to a board that does not share its values?

Not likely in this lifetime.

There are lots of problems, and parents will have to make the ultimate decision as to where their kids can get the education that fits the family's values. I don't think that many Catholic parents will be happy with a public charter, but that remains to be seen.

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