Sonia Sotomayor, Supreme Court justice, might never have blossomed in the Bronx without the help of a faith-based school, a Catholic oasis called Blessed Sacrament. Sotomayor herself says so. Asked by Anderson Cooper if she would have become who she is without the school, Sotomayor said, “Doubtful.”

Sadly, Blessed Sacrament is closing this year, felled by the same social and economic forces – and education policies – that contributed to the shuttering of 1,300 Catholic schools in the past 20 years. There is tragedy and irony in its passing. You don’t have to be religious to feel it.

For most of this country’s history, faith-based schools have been a fundamental part of the American experience. But now, as the nation continues to wrestle with how best to get academic traction with poor and minority kids, its 21,000 religious schools continue to shrink, and continue to be mostly overlooked as a potential piece of the solution.

Here’s the tragic part. Eleven of 12 gold standard research studies find positive academic outcomes for students using vouchers to attend private schools, the vast majority of them religious schools. More recently, William Jeynes, a researcher at California State University, Long Beach, found via a meta-analysis of 90 studies that students in religious schools were on average seven months ahead of their peers in traditional public and charter schools. This was after controlling for race, gender, poverty and parental involvement.

Faith-based schools are a financial bargain, too – for all of us. Average tuition is thousands of dollars less than per-pupil funding for public schools, so collectively, taxpayers are saving tens of billions of dollars a year.

All this isn’t to say faith-based schools are the end-all, be-all. They range in quality just as charter and virtual and traditional public schools do. But in this era of customization, they offer more options, and in this time of desperation, more hands on deck. There is no good reason to bar them from the mix of educational alternatives that is helping parents and educators find the best fit for each and every child.

We’ve seen what faith-based schools like Cristo Rey can do. What if there were more of them? We’ve seen what high-performing charter networks like KIPP and Carpe Diem can do. What if similar models had a faith component?

Here’s the ironic part. Faith-based schools continue to bleed enrollment, particularly in inner cities, just as attitudes towards school choice are becoming more positive. As voucher and tax credit scholarship programs mature, the evidence increasingly shows private schools aren’t draining money from public schools, or cherry picking the best and brightest, or undermining democracy. Meanwhile, more and more parents, educators, policymakers – and even some former critics – are seeing that publicly funded private options aren’t an either-or proposition.

The responsible position isn’t public or private, religious or secular. It’s whatever works. And what can work now is for the nation to help faith-based schools reclaim their historic position as a visible, valued partner, and then consider policies that make sense in that context. That means expansion of voucher and tax credit scholarship programs. That means a level playing field in terms of funding.

Here’s the good part. More people are talking about this, and more faith-based schools are doing their part. Last year, the American Center for School Choice – which co-hosts this blog – formed the national Commission on Faith-based Schools to raise awareness. News reports are looking at the interplay between charter and private schools. Catholic schools are beginning to embrace reforms like online and blended learning. Researchers like Sean Kennedy at the Lexington Institute are beating the drum.

Is it too late? In The Atlantic this month, Checker Finn offers a pretty pessimistic take on the future of private schools. He says he wouldn’t bet a year’s tuition that rank-and-file private schools can change fast enough to survive. Now I wouldn’t bet against Checker Finn; he knows more about education than I ever will. But I sure hope he’s wrong.

Some future Sonia Sotomayors will blossom in traditional public schools, some in charter schools, some in faith-based schools. I think we can all agree that where they blossom is nowhere near as important as increasing the odds that they do.

Ron Matus can be reached at rmatus@sufs.org or (813) 402-0207.

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2 comments

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Mike Rogers May 30, 2013 - 10:26 pm

Excellent article. I would argue that faith-based schools have an advantage when it comes to changing quickly due to the large amount of freedom from the bureaucracies of public schools. I certainly hope Checker Finn is wrong!

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Ron Matus May 31, 2013 - 9:00 am

Hi Mike, thanks very much for reading us and for commenting. I too think private schools have the potential to be more nimble than public schools, but I know there are folks even in the school choice realm who aren’t so sure. I recently interviewed researcher William Jeynes, who I mentioned in this post. He offered some other reasons why faith-based schools may be getting better outcomes. You can check it out here: http://www.redefinedonline.org/2013/05/study-students-in-faith-based-schools-have-academic-edge-over-public-school-peers/

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