Catholic schools and school choice
Faith-based schools will be more effective in expanding school choice – and in getting Americans to see their value – if they work together across traditional lines, suggests the chairman of a new national commission that aims to foster that kind of coalition.
“We want to encourage the leaders of faith-based schools to become more engaged, to make sure that together, across lines, across sectarian and religious lines, they join forces to advocate for the families and for their institutions,” said Michael Guerra, who chairs the Commission on Faith-based Schools, in the podcast below.
The 14-member commission, which met for the first time last month, was launched by the American Center for School Choice. Guerra is a founding director of the center (which co-hosts redefinED) and past president of the National Catholic Educational Association.
It’s no coincidence the commission is emerging now, he said. Publicly funded school choice is rising in acceptance and yet, at the same time, there is enormous flux among faith-based schools. Catholic schools, for example, have been dwindling in urban areas where they long anchored neighborhoods and served low-income families. “These are assets too precious to be lost,” Guerra said.
John Giotis, a Republican activist who heads a Catholic school in St. Petersburg, Fla., is among 15 people named to a new National Educators for Romney group.
The 15-member group is headed by Rod Paige, who served as U.S. Secretary of Education during President George W. Bush’s first term.
Giotis, headmaster of The School of the Immaculata, was among the social conservates in Florida who sided with Romney in the Republican primary. He is the latest Floridian to assume a high-profile position in Romney’s education circle. Jeb Bush wrote the forward to Romney’s education plan. Former Florida Board of Education Chair Phil Handy co-chairs one of his education policy advisory groups. And Julio Fuentes, president & CEO of the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options (as well as a Step Up For Students board member), serves on an ed policy committee.
A Romney campaign said the new group will lead efforts to support “Romney and his bold education reforms that will put students first.”
Paige said in the release: “I’ve worked with Republicans and Democrats to bring quality education to all of our children, and I can say with authority that Mitt Romney understands the reforms this country needs. For too long, we’ve watched as our most disadvantaged children have been denied the one tool they need to rise from poverty and live a successful life—a world-class education. Mitt Romney has proposed real reforms that will finally bring the change we need and that our children deserve. In Chicago, we are seeing again that entrenched special interests will oppose those efforts, but Governor Romney is a leader who can overcome that opposition. I am proud to support him in this endeavor.”
News about Catholic schools in the U.S. usually isn’t good. Rarely a week goes by without a headline about another one closing and, with it, a neighborhood institution that for generations brought high-quality education to often low-income families. So what a nice change to see another local story about a Catholic school in Tampa, for years on the brink of closing, making a comeback.
Thanks to hard work and grit and a growth in tax-credit scholarships. St. Peter Claver recruited 163 students this year, up from 102 las year, according to today’s Bay News 9 (which also took this photo). Ninety percent received tax credit scholarships, which are only available to families who qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch.
Increasingly, St. Peter Claver isn’t an anomaly. The Wall Street Journal reported in June that, “Fo the first time in decades, Catholic education is showing signs of life.” It continued: “Driven by expanding voucher programs, outreach to Hispanic Catholics and donations by business leaders, Catholic schools in several major cities are swinging back from closures and declining enrollment.”
On a related note, another Tampa Bay area Catholic school, Sacred Heart in Pinellas Park, is holding a celebration this weekend to highlight its new partnership with the Notre Dame ACE Academies. As we’ve written before, the Notre Dame group is moving to take Catholic schools to a higher level, and it is using a couple of Tampa Bay schools as a model. Tax credit scholarships are key to its efforts to boost enrollment, particularly among Hispanics.
On an education landscape with more private options, these are signs of healthy ferment.
A chain of Catholic, college-prep high schools that has demonstrated success with low-income students is eyeing two Florida cities for a possible expansion. Tampa and Miami are near the top of the list for the Chicago-based Cristo Rey Network, group president Rob Birdsell told redefinED. The reasons: A good job pool. The availability of tax credit scholarships. A need for more high-quality options for low-income kids. And maybe even some nudging from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
“We very much want to get to Florida,” Birdsell said in a phone interview. “Gov. Bush is a friend of Cristo Rey (and) he is persistent.”
Lauded by education reformers and others for innovative work with Hispanic and African American students (see if you can get through this “60 Minutes” piece without crying), Cristo Rey now operates 24 Catholic high schools in 17 states and the District of Columbia. Its students typically come in two grade levels behind. But 84 percent of those who graduate enroll in college.
The students pay more than half of the $12,000 average tuition through a corporate work study program that gives them real-world experience at banks, hospitals, law firms and other partners. Accessing Florida’s tax credit scholarship program – worth $4,335 per student this fall – would fill out most of the remaining gap. That would take pressure off both the families and the network’s fundraisers.
Colorado: Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush lays out his education reform formula, with expanded school choice a key plank. (Education News Colorado)
Pennsylvania: Hundreds of Catholic school students in Philadelphia rally for a voucher bill. (CBS Philly)
Michigan: State lawmakers consider funding cyber schools on performance rather than enrollment. (MLive.com)
Washington: Expanded school choice in the form of charter schools – Washington is one of the few states without any – is an issue in the governor’s race. (Seattle Times)
After reading story after story about Catholic schools closing, it was heartening this morning to instead read about an aggressive local effort to help them rebound. The Diocese of St. Petersburg, in the Tampa Bay region of Florida, has launched an ambitious plan to reverse declining enrollment and ensure that Catholic schools remain a solid part of the community bedrock that they have been for generations.
As detailed in today’s Tampa Bay Times, the effort aims to make school operations more efficient and academic offerings more rigorous. It includes a key partnership with Notre Dame University’s Ace Academies, which will help with the quality piece. And it involves increased use of Florida’s tax credit scholarship program, which gives low-income families more learning options for their kids. “It’s a reimagining of how our schools would look like in five to 10 years from now, to make them viable,” Alberto Vazquez-Matos, the diocese’s superintendent, told the Times.
In this podcast interview with redefinED in March, Christian Dallavis, director of the ACE Academies, put the Tampa Bay partnership in context. He noted Hispanics in the U.S. make up two thirds of practicing Catholics under the age of 35, and that the high school graduation rate for Hispanics is about 50 percent. “We see the future of the church is on pace to be kind of radically undereducated,” he said. But “we also have a solution in that we know Catholic schools often put kids on a path to college in ways that they don’t have other opportunities to do so.”
The success of Hispanic students is especially important in Florida, where Hispanics could be a majority in a few decades. Boosting Catholic schools with innovative partnerships and school choice programs is a bold response that offers hope for the future.
Catholic schools used to be neighborhood schools. Many of them served immigrant familes. But since 2000 alone, more than 1,700 have closed in the United States, leaving voids in communities and diminishing school choice options for families who could use them now more than ever. In an effort to change that, the University of Notre Dame is leading a partnership that aims to improve the quality of Catholic schools, particularly for low-income, Hispanic families.
The university’s ACE Academies program began two years ago in Tucson, Arizona and is now rolling out at two schools in Tampa Bay (St. Joseph in Tampa and Sacred Heart in Pinellas Park). In this redefinED podcast, program director Christian Dallavis notes two important statistics: 1) two thirds of practicing Catholics in the U.S. who are under the age of 35 are Hispanic, and 2) only about 50 percent of Hispanic students graduate from high school in four years.
“We see the future of the church is on pace to be kind of radically undereducated,” Dallavis said. But “we also have a solution in that we know Catholic schools often put kids on a path to college in ways that they don’t have other opportunities to do so.”
“They provide a mechanism that allows Catholic schools and other faith-based schools to sustain their legacy of providing extraordinary educational opportunities to low-income families, immgrant communities, minority children, the people on the margins,” Dallavis said. “We see the tax credit as really providing the opportunity to allow the schools to thrive going into the future.”
But make no mistake. This effort isn’t about quantity. The Notre Dame folks know in this day and age, school quality, whether public or private, is essential – and they’re looking to beef up everything from curriculum to leadership to professional development. Their goal for the kids: College and Heaven. Enjoy the podcast.