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A great blog post from the Franciscan Sisters that are working in partnership with the University of Notre Dame’s ND ACE Academies, one of the newest initiatives of the Alliance for Catholic Education.

Alright, here is the first topic of discussion and I’m eager to hear your thoughts.  What will be the impact of national standards on Catholic schools and what should it be?

First some context:

The New York Times reported on Wednesday of this week, 27 states (now 29) have adopted national standards only 2 months after they were presented.   Their quick adoption is due to the DOE offering more points on Race to the Top for those states that opt in.

Some folks are FOR the national standards, including the Gates Foundation and Fordam’s Flypaper blogChecker Finn and Mike Petrelli’s article in the National Review online summarizes the “for” position well, while explaining the challenges that lie ahead.

It certainly helps that the new standards were created by a voluntary partnership of 48 states, not by the federal government. But it’s also true that the Common Core standards are remarkably strong, vastly better than the standards most states have developed independently over the past 15 years. Yesterday, our institute released a 370-page study that finds the Common Core standards to be clearly superior to the existing English standards of 37 states and the existing math standards of 39.

Anxiety will surely rise when school kids across the land begin (three or four years hence) to take tests linked to these standards, and even more when those test results start to determine promotion from fifth to sixth grade or graduation from high school. (The development of those tests will soon start, aided by $350 million of federal stimulus funds.) But without tests and results-based accountability, along with solid curricula, quality textbooks, and competent teaching, standards alone have no traction in real classrooms.

The folks over at Jay P. Greene’s blog are much more skeptical.  They have weighed in on the issue AGAINST national standards here, here, here, and especially here.  Their position can best be summarized with these remarks from Jay Greene:

The answer is not to have bigger, more centralized regulations.  The answer is to maintain the proper incentives by empowering market forces, which also serve to keep the regulatory framework honest.

Even though it is messy and imperfect, we need to decentralize power in education rather than centralize it.  We need to do so for the same reason the Constitution decentralizes power — to prevent abuses and tyranny that inevitably arise when power is unchecked and concentrated.  We need to decentralize power in education to allow market mechanisms to operate.  We need to decentralize power to recognize the legitimate diversity of needs and approaches that exist in our educational system.

So, on the one side is the argument for quality common standards linked to tests which should increase accountability and drive performance.  The other side argues for preserving diversity and plurality in the system and worries about the corruption of too much centralized influence.

Now what about Catholic schools?  Catholic schools do not have standardized curriculum, but often follow, to a greater or lesser degree, the standards of the states where they are located.  Nearly all Catholic schools already take nationally normed tests and do very well on them in terms of comparative performance.  Will national standards increase pressure on Catholic schools to fall into line?  Would this be a good thing in bringing coherence to a VERY decentralized system that is often regarded as non-transparent and difficult to compare easily with public schools?  Or would this threaten the autonomy and diversity of Catholic schools?  Would it put too much pressure on secular performance indicators and threaten their commitment to a robust Catholic identity and sufficient control over their own curriculum?  What about Catholic schools that are participating in voucher and tax-credit programs?

A lot to think about here, folks, and I’d be most interested in hearing your thoughts!

Fellow Catholic School Advocates,

It’s time to get into the discussion.  These past months of blogging have been a labor of love, sometimes with an emphasis on labor!  I picked up the pen because I was disappointed that there was nothing like this online or among existing blogs.  Its been a lot of fun but a TON of work.  At times I’ve wondered if it has been worth the effort and if people are actually reading with interest, and at times this has caused motivation to wane.

Well the past few weeks have offered some great affirmation.  In a few separate instances over the past month I’ve met or run into a number of individuals that have been regular readers and have expressed their interest and appreciation for The Catholic School Advocate.  Honestly, this was great to hear and a huge motivation to continue.

This has led me to the following reflection, I want to hear more from folks that are reading and so the blog should try to be more interactive.  As the blog subtitle suggests, “News, Commentary and Discussion.”  Well it appears that we’ve been modestly successful with the news and commentary, but the discussion has been wanting.

So there are two parts to this… I will solicit more  input, feedback and thoughts from you.  In turn, I hope that you readers will be generous in offering your thoughts and opinions on relevant topics pertinent to Catholic schools.  I hope this will create meaningful discussion and even thoughtful and respectful debate.

Sound good?

OK, as promised, an update on New Jersey, Indiana and Virginia, the three states that appear to have the best chances of advancing school choice efforts in the short term.

First, Indiana, which is one of the newest states to gain school choice in the form of a modest scholarship tax-credit program.  Currently the tax-credit is granted for 50% of donations on State tax liability for corporations or individuals and the total cap for the program is at $2.5 million in tax-credits, which leverage $5 million in scholarship funds.  In other words, it is currently a very modest program.  The total scholarship level is very small and the 50% tax-credit is weak compared to the 80% in Pennsylvania or the 100% in Florida and Arizona.  But it appears that politically, things in Indiana are looking good.  It is likely that Republicans will win back a majority in both houses at the mid-term and that Governor Mitch Daniels is rearing to go for a big push on education reform.  This could result in a major expansion to the program or a second parental choice program, like vouchers for students with disabilities.

The biggest barrier to expansion is that the tax-credit program has been slow in getting started.  It took a while to get the Scholarship organizations up and running and approved by the State.  This resulted in a very small proportion of the total tax-credits being used in 2010, the first year of the program.  To lawmakers, this suggests that the program wasn’t very popular.  This will need to change quickly if law-makers are to be convinced that parental choice is working and in high demand with Indiana parents.  Still, there is great opportunity here, so keep your eye out early in 2011 for some action.

Next, New Jersey.  New Jersey has the chance of becoming the newest parental choice state in the union.  There is a bill moving now that has already made it out of a Senate committee and is attracting serious debate.  It is likely that we may see action in the next month or so.  Though New Jersey is typically a very strong union state with large and powerful teachers unions, the good people there have begun to get fed up.  When the Camden Public School District spends $25,000 per child, yes $25,000!!!, with very little to show for this absurd level of expense, tax-payers just don’t believe that teachers being underpaid is the root of weak performance in public schools.  It is worth noting that Catholic elementary schools in Camden list tuition at $3,500, but usually the parents only pay $1,000 while the remainder is supported by the parish and donations.

Parents want more options and are ready for change.  Meanwhile, Catholic schools in NJ are continuing to shut their doors left and right, meaning those options are quickly disappearing.   The good news here is that NJ has a very strong Mayor in Chris Christie, and some strong reform oriented leaders in the Education office in x and y, that will push hard for this needed reform.  The bad news is that Christie has already burnt up some political capital with some hard decisions on budget cuts and embattled the unions.  This will be an interesting fight, and potentially a pretty rough one.  I’m hopeful.

Finally, Virginia.  Virginia seemed very promising with the election of a pro school choice Mayor in Bob McDonald and the appointment of a reform oriented Secretary of Education.  In January and February a scholarship tax-credit bill passed the House only to die in a Senate committee.  I haven’t seen or heard anything else from Virginia since then and the School Choice Virginia web-site and blog appears to have gone dormant.   That’s about all I know about Virginia, but I’ll check with friends to try to learn more.  If anyone has any information, please add a comment and let us know.

Also, please comment about any school choice related action going on in your state!

In 2002 John Watzke published an article, Teachers for Whom?, that demonstrated Catholic Higher Education’s decisive orientation towards serving public schools and a rather weak commitment to serving K-12 Catholic Schools, at least as indicated by teacher preparation programs.  The Bishops document, Renewing Our Commitment to K-12 Catholic Schools in the New Millennium, called for a greater commitment from Catholic Higher Ed to help serve the needs of Catholic schools nationally.

Recent years – especially this year – have seen some indication of Catholic higher ed stepping up.

The University of Notre Dame has continued its dynamic leadership in this field through the rather dramatic expansion of the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE).  This year ACE launched the Catholic School Advantage, a major campaign to increase access to Catholic schools for 1 million Latino children nationally, and developed a new University-school partnership program called ND ACE Academies, where ACE currently supports a cluster of three Catholic schools in the Dioceses of Tucson.  ACE is also in the process of starting a new Center for K-12 Educational Access in August, and is launching a new certification program this summer for teaching exceptional children.  All of the programs in ACE are aimed exclusively at sustaining and strengthening Catholic schools.

Boston College has recently made a significant investment to its Center for Catholic Education with a 20 million dollar donation from a supermarket owner and has appointed Patricia Weitzel-O’Neill, the current Superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Archdiocese of Washington D.C., as its new director.

St. John’s University has just launched a new Institute for Catholic Schools to serve the Diocese of Brooklyn and the Archdiocese of New York.

Loyola University Chicago’s Center for Catholic School Effectiveness hosted a semi-annual conference of Catholic higher educational institutions committed to strengthening K-12 Catholic schools.  They offered some interesting proposed next steps.

The University Consortium for Catholic Education (UCCE) now numbers 15 programs providing over 400 teachers annually for Catholic schools, and the Association of Catholic Leadership Programs (ACLP) continues its work.

There are, of course, other programs, but these are the highlights.

Unfortunately, Catholic higher ed seems to be coming in late in the game and K-12 Catholic schools continue to reel in the wake of the recession.  The financial crisis is still the most urgent issue, and this recent online report from a conference at Notre Dame sums things up well.

The national news continues to be grim for K-12 Catholic schools.  If we are to reverse the tide of closures and make good on the phrase “revitalizing Catholic schools,” Catholic higher ed will need to do much more and quickly.  Many more institutions will need to get involved and the biggest institutions will need to continue to enhance their explicit and direct commitment to Catholic schools.  These are at least some small steps in the right direction.

Earlier I offered a post suggesting that 2010 might be the year of school choice, with five states to watch, Illinois, Indiana, Florida, Virginia and New Jersey.   Maryland was added to the list after 13 Catholic schools closed in Baltimore, making the issue more prescient and bringing  Democratic Governor O’Malley to change his stance and voice his support.

Well, the past few months have seen a lot of action, but unfortunately not a lot of victories.

Florida, thus far, has been the major exception.  Florida saw, as expected, a resounding victory and major support for expanded school choice legislation.  Florida raised the cap on the maximum scholarship amount and essentially wrote in legislation that erases the cap on the maximum participation in the state wide tax-credit program.  The legislation is written such that as soon as demand for tax-credits scholarships get within a certain number of the maximum allowed by law, the number is automatically raised.  This means, in effect, there is no cap on the number of tax-credit scholarships in Florida.  Florida is now the state that distributes the largest number of publicly funded scholarships to private schools and by far the most dollars in private scholarship programs.  Florida is also seeing incredible gains in student test scores, nearly erasing the achievement gap in reading in the past 10 years, a feat that has eluded educators and policy makers for generations.  Florida has an incredibly strong coalition and total bi-partisan support for parental choice.  Things will just continue to get better there.

That’s the good news, now for the bad…

Despite what appeared to be an important opportunity to shine a light on the vital role that Catholic schools play in urban communities and the significant public interest at making them more accessible through parental choice programs, the Maryland tax-credit legislation, BOAST, died in the House this April.

In May, the exciting prospects of a voucher bill passing in Chicago, as I discussed here, here,  and here suffered a major set-back.  The Chicago Trib covered the sad story.  Though the bill passed in the Senate – a rather incredible feat –  it too died in the Democratically controlled House.  But as the Miracle Man (played by Billy Crystal) in the Princess Bride says, its “only mostly dead, which is not all dead.”  Its still technically alive, but it looks like it will take a miracle to bring it back to life.  The good news is that School Choice Illinois has reinvented itself with some strong new talent that I recently had the pleasure of meeting.  The big picture here is that this is a moral victory of sorts.  It means that school choice in Illinois is now that much closer to being within grasp.  If an effective coalition can be built with strong grass-roots support then Senator Meeks will not be  a voice in the wilderness crying out for school choice but a leader with clear and strong support among various actors.  Without this kind of base, there is no consequence for those that do not support choice, while those that do support choice risk incurring the wrath of the teacher’s unions or losing their link to the single largest special interest source of political funding in America.  We need to educate the community and religious leaders that represent the parents and communities that stand to gain so much from these programs.

That leaves Indiana, Virginia and New Jersey, as states that still have good possibilities for wins.  I’ll come back with updates on these three states in my next post.