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This WSJ article by Staphanie Banchero and Jennifer Levitz detail some of the promising signs for Catholic schools nationally, Vouchers Breathe New Life Into Shrinking Catholic Schools.  Though much of the largest gains are in states with voucher and tax-credit programs, especially promising is the enrollment growth in large cities like Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles – all in states which lack publicly funded scholarship programs.  It is notable that all three cities have a large commitment to privately funded scholarships and have been proactive in welcoming Latino families to Catholic schools, two factors that may explain some of their recent growth.

One has to wonder if the combination of expanding voucher and tax credit programs and efforts to innovate and adapt to changing markets have started to yield a systemic turnaround.  Though too early to suggest that the 50 year storm of enrollment decline and closure is abating, these are very promising signs that fairer weather may be on the horizon.

For the first time in decades, Catholic education is showing signs of life. 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.

Chicago Catholic elementary schools saw enrollment increase 3% this year and 1% last year—the first two-year growth spurt since 1965. Greater Boston elementary schools had a 2% bump—the first in 20 years. And Los Angeles, Indianapolis and Bridgeport, Conn., also added desks for the first time in years.

Nationally since 2000, U.S. Catholic school enrollment has plummeted by 23%, and 1,900 schools have closed, driven by demographic changes and fallout from priest sexual-abuse scandals. Newark, N.J., and Philadelphia have announced plans to close even more Catholic schools.

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But lately, Catholic schools have slowed their overall rate of decline. This year, two million children attended Catholic schools, down 1.7% from last, but less than the average yearly decline of 2.5% over the past decade.

The improving prospects for Catholic schools in some cities come at a time of great ferment in U.S. education. Years of overhauls in public schools have yielded only modest progress. And attendance at independent private schools fell during the recession.

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Parental choice in Oklahoma suffered an unfortunate setback on Tuesday, as a Tulsa County judge ruled that the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program is unconstitutional.  The scholarship program, which allows any Oklahoma student with a disability to use public funds to attend a private school, currently serves 149 children in the state.

Not surprisingly, reaction to Judge Rebecca Nightingale’s ruling was deeply divided.  Tulsa Union Superintendent Cathy Burden praised the decision, arguing that the students with special needs had really been “used as a pawn to try and get a voucher system started.”  Meanwhile, Rep. Jason Nelson, who authored the original bill, questioned the motives behind the school districts’ opposition.  “It’s not about religion….It’s not about what’s best for these children.”  Instead, he claimed, “It’s about power and money with these school districts.

The ruling will be appealed to Oklahoma’s Supreme Court.

(Guest post by Anna Jacob)

Does expanded parental school choice improve outcomes for students, parents, schools, and communities?  That question is central to current debates about education reform.

On Feb 27, 2012, the School Choice Demonstration Project, an independent education research center based within the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, released its fifth and final set of reports in a comprehensive, longitudinal evaluation of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP). Established in 1990, the MPCP, or “Choice Program” as many refer to it, is the oldest and largest urban school choice program in the United States, providing government scholarships to Milwaukee families wishing to enroll their children in private schools. In its first year of operation, the MPCP enrolled 341 students in seven secular private participating schools. The program has grown substantially since then. In the current school year 23,198 students are using a voucher worth up to $6,442 to enroll in one of the 106 private participating secular and religious schools.

In 2006 Wisconsin policymakers identified the School Choice Demonstration Project (SCDP), led by Dr. Patrick J. Wolf, as the independent research organization to help evaluate the impacts of school choice in Milwaukee.  The SCDP has now released thirty-one topical reports and five summary reports examining a comprehensive range of program impacts.

The major findings of the most recent set of reports are:

  • The MPCP continues to expand while excluding underperforming schools.
  • Enrolling in a private high school through the MPCP increases the likelihood of a student graduating from high school, enrolling in a four-year college and persisting in college.
  • A consistent sample of MPCP students, tracked for five years, scored higher in reading but similar in math to a comparable group of Milwaukee Public School (MPS) students. A high-stakes testing policy added to the MPCP in the final year of the evaluation may have been largely responsible for the boost in reading achievement.
  • A descriptive snapshot study comparing 2010-11 test score data for all MPCP and similar, low-income MPS students reveals that MPCP students, on average, have higher test scores in reading and science in grades 8 and 10 but lower test scores in math and in 4th grade.
  • Between 7.5 and 14.6 percent of MPCP students have a disability, compared to 19 percent in Milwaukee Public Schools. These MPCP figures are much higher and likely more reliable than the 1.6 percent previously reported by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction for MPCP students.
  • Site visits in the spring and fall of 2011 to 13 MPCP schools revealed that many Choice students come to the private schools 1-2 years behind academically.
  • The achievement growth of charter school students is similar to MPS students in both reading and math, although the particular subgroup of conversion charters (schools that used to be private schools) demonstrates higher achievement growth than MPS

The school choice movement gathered phenomenal momentum in 2011, a year that saw school choice legislation introduced, passed or signed into law in 41 states. In all, seven new school choice programs were enacted and 11 programs were expanded. The MPCP is the forefather of these programs and the non-partisan evaluation of its impacts offers important insight for policymakers in all states.

Note: Figure comes from ‘School Choice Now: The Year of School Choice. School Choice Yearbook 2011-12’

Readers seeking extensive details regarding study design, sampling procedures and statistical methods used in the SCDP evaluation of the MPCP can download the full set of reports at http://www.uark.edu/ua/der/SCDP/Milwaukee_Research.html.

Anna M. Jacob, M.Ed., is a Ph.D. student in Education Policy and Doctoral Academy Fellow in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. She works as a Graduate Assistant with the School Choice Demonstration Project. She received her B.Ed. from St Patrick’s College Dublin,where she graduated with first- class honours, and her M.Ed. through the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education program.

I wanted to throw my hat in the ring in response to Matt’s most recent post, School Choice and Catholic Schools, and a post that he references from Scott Alessi from the U.S. Catholic.  Both Matt and Scott make important distinctions about why Catholics support school choice.  Scott offers this:

Undoubtedly, Catholic schools do have a lot to gain from voucher systems, but we have to remember that is not the primary reason why Catholics support them. The real issue here is one of justice, that every child deserves equal access to a quality education regardless of their social or economic status.  Our agenda isn’t about self-preservation, it is about doing what is best for everyone. That means we want to see all kids get a quality education, no matter what school they attend.

In other words, vouchers are good because they let under-privileged children get out of low-performing schools and attend higher quality schools.  It is a matter of equality of opportunity.  Undoubtedly this is true and one of the primary reasons to support school choice.

But it suggests that if we could wave a magic wand and just fix the failing urban public schools – the “drop-out factories” as they are sometimes called – then we would not need school choice.  Some would advocate for such a course of action, despite the enormous challenges to school turnaround policy and programs and their history of being expensive and ineffective.  Yet even if it were a successful strategy and we suddenly transformed drop-out factories into high quality schools, there would still be other compelling reasons for school choice.  And Matt points to an important one:

Redressing a wrong (i.e., that some parents have no say in what school their child attends) is always worthwhile and must remain the primary focus.

Matt’s comment suggests that the injustice is not only that hundreds of thousands of low-income minority children are relegated to failing schools, but that their parents are denied the right to exercise a choice in the matter.  The reality of the situation is that middle and upper income families have school choice.  They can choose to move to a different school district or pay tuition to send their children to a private school.  Because of economic constraints, low-income families do not have choice.  They are legally forced to send their children to a school that is assigned to them based upon where they live.  Now, this injustice is doubly offensive because those schools are often dangerous places that dramatically fail to educate their children.  But the very fact that parents are denied a choice is an injustice.  Parents deserve to have a voice in where their children send their kids to school.  The State is not the primary care-taker of my one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, and the State will not decide where she must go to school when the time comes.  My wife and I are her parents, the primary educators and caregivers of our daughter, and we will make this profoundly important decision based upon what we think is best for her.  To deny educational choice is not only to deny access to a quality education, it is to deny the dignity of parents as the caregivers of their children.  The principle of subsidiarity from Catholic social teaching is the basis from which the Church advocates for leaving this responsibility in the hands of parents, and not denying it based-upon economic background.

Yet even this fails to provide us with the full picture.  Charter schools provide real choice and options for parents.  They are an important innovation and reform to the American education system, and are one valuable source of choice and educational innovation.  However, only supporting a policy of charter schools or public school choice is not enough. To quote Pope Benedict XVI in his 2008 address to Catholic Educators in America:

No child should be denied his or her right to an education in faith, which in turn nurtures the soul of a nation.

It is not just equality of educational opportunity and recognizing the dignity of parents and giving them due responsibility for their children’s education.  Fundamentally, authentic parental choice is a matter of religious liberty.  Without authentic parental choice that is open to all forms of schooling, including faith-based and private schools, there is still an injustice that Catholics must oppose.  If we opened charter schools and public school choice and turned around all of the failing urban public schools, poor children would still be denied the opportunity to have their souls nurtured through a faith-based education.  It is the noble aim of the U.S. Constitution to protect the religious liberty of the people.  For many parents, providing an education infused with faith, a moral foundation, alignment with the values taught in the home, and a sense of broader meaning in knowledge and life, is of fundamental importance and is a way of exercising religious conviction.  We must protect this free-exercise of religious conviction, for parents but fundamentally for children.  To do anything less is to deny some children the right to an education in faith.

These are the reasons that the Church and Catholics support parental choice, and why many thoughtful and civic minded Americans support it too.

As USA Today reports, Indiana has just passed the nation’s most sweeping parental choice plan.  Boom.  This is huge.  My man Mitch…

See the details about this exciting legislation here.

(Guest Post by Shannon Stackhouse Flores)

As a graduate of a doctoral program at a large public university, to even say the words “school choice” or “Catholic education” causes me to cringe in fear of retribution from many of my colleagues. For this reason, I have hesitated in the past to identify myself with the school choice movement, at least as a political concept.

In order to expand the reach of my passion, however, I think it is very important to define for myself and for others my convictions at this moment, as a fairly young researcher. It is impossible to deny that my viewpoint has been very much formed by my own schooling experiences (Catholic K-8, magnet high school, private undergraduate institution, Catholic graduate school and public graduate school) as well as by the foundational fact that I am black and Catholic, the latter largely a result of my elementary experience.

That out of the way, one of my hesitations in joining this debate has been that despite a great fondness for Catholic education, I chose to enter the field of education policy NOT primarily in order to further the aims and viability of Catholic schools, but rather to be part of the contingent of people really pushing for greater justice within the educational system at large. My general passion is for children, particularly poor and minority (be they Catholic or non-Catholic) who daily suffer the injustice of low quality education. My concern is for kids who attend schools that are at best places to go to get off the streets and at worst just as dangerous as the neighborhoods from which they come. I have recently been researching some Chicago public school data (not to point fingers; this just happens to be the data I have been researching) and while I am fully aware of all of the difficulties inherent in using testing data – particularly as a snapshot and in the aggregate – to measure performance, I ran across some such data that was truly horrifying. More or less randomly, I encountered multiple public high schools in which only 15% or 20% of students met state testing standards in reading and math. Regardless of what the specific standards are, this means that a majority of those students will leave school not knowing how to read or perform calculations at even the most basic of levels. It literally turns my stomach that there are hundreds of youth, still children really, who are going to leave school unequipped with even the basic level of skills with which to survive in our society, much less having the opportunity to thrive in our knowledge economy. For those schools to even be called schools is to me a crime against humanity, specifically that of the children they purport to serve. (Note: I understand/believe that in many places, schools are called upon to do far too much; essentially to function in dysfunctional communities. That is a topic for another post. For now, let us just consider it at the very least a crime of our society against a portion of itself that we allow schools like this to exist.)

The fact is that there are schools that do succeed with poor and minority kids: some charter, some private, some Catholic, some public. I believe that schools that do succeed in this area MUST be rewarded. Perhaps any school that meets certain academic standards and brings poor and minority children up to grade level (or beyond) could receive some amount of funding… and those schools, of all kinds, that are serving their student populations the worst, can be closed and their funding redirected.

I know that the issue of church/state separation is not trivial, do not consider it so myself. But there must be a way to create standards by which as long as certain ideals are upheld (and others explicitly not proffered), and as long as all publicly funded schools share some common ways of measuring success, we can begin to better sustain schools like those inner-city Catholic schools that have historically maintained that poor immigrant and brown children CAN learn, and have a system already in place for ensuring that they do.

At the end of the day, we really need to increase the urgency of this issue. I do not know or really care to know what political label to place upon my viewpoints, but I do know that as a new mother, my little family’s near limitless freedom of educational opportunity is very clear and extremely valuable to me. Also crystal clear is the fact that nothing is as important to me as ensuring that my daughter will be safe, happy, and loved by all to whose care she is entrusted; and that every possible opportunity be available to her. Every child deserves all of those things. I know that “my people” as a whole still fail to secure these very basic human necessities at far too great a rate. We know how important education is in improving quality of life along every dimension. We just need to work harder, more quickly, and with greater passion to extend access to quality schools to those who need it the most.

(Guest Post by Daniel Bowen)

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when I say, “school choice?”  For me, it’s spaghetti sauce.  Now, before you begin psychoanalyzing my mental association of education and Italian cuisine, let me explain.

The evolution of spaghetti sauce exemplifies the importance of variability in a marketplace.  Back in the 1980s, Prego hired Dr. Howard Moskowitz to find a sauce better than that of the sauce champion of the day, Ragu.  However, after extensive field research on consumer preferences, Moskowitz would ultimately fail to find the “Holy Grail of Sauces.”  Instead, he concluded that there was no perfect sauce.  Rather, diversity in tastes and preferences of consumers dictated the need for several “perfect sauces.”  (Malcolm Gladwell gives an extensive overview of Moskowitz’s research – found here).

While you would be hard-pressed to find an adversary to an increase in spaghetti sauce options (except maybe Ragu at the time), increasing school choice is much more contested.  Moskowitz’s research and arguments may focus on spaghetti sauce, but these can be applied to school options too.  Let’s look at three of the central arguments Moskowitz makes for spaghetti sauce variability and apply them to school choice:

1. Informing Consumers

Spaghetti Sauce: Moskowitz discovered that consumers liked variety if given proper information.  The majority of consumers aren’t product innovators or experts.  So, when Prego initially surveyed the public about what they wanted, they either didn’t know or simply reiterated the qualities of sauces they already consumed.  However, after experimenting with recipes and making people aware of different types of sauces, one in three consumers would ultimately prefer chunkier sauce. They just didn’t know this preference until they were made aware of and offered such a sauce.

Schools: Schools work the same way.  One of the great obstacles to an effective system of choice is providing information for choosers.  A parent may be familiar with the schools they went through, but they may not be aware of other options.  As a case and point, many first year D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (DCOSP) parents admit that they sent their children to schools without even making a visit to the school.  They just heard or presumed the school was good based on reputation.  Parents may unknowingly prefer single-sex education or greater emphasis on the fine arts.  They might just be unaware that such options exist.

2. Horizontal Segmentation

Spaghetti Sauce: Once the notion that other options exist, it becomes clear that consumers have a wide range of preferences.  Some consumers prefer a “garden fresh” sauce.  Others long for something spicier.  The key to satisfying a given consumer is not found in a singular, magical recipe.  Moskowitz found that a plurality of those surveyed preferred a chunkier sauce, but he warned Prego to not be simply satisfied with altering their main sauce.  Instead, he advocated that Prego would benefit more from casting a wider net to meet the needs of more consumers.

Schools: Once again, the same goes for schools. Some parents want religious instruction.  Others long for something spicier.  Different students have different needs.  Different parents have different preferences.  Simply tweaking one “recipe” does not suit the needs of the entire market.  Variability in both cases is the key to satisfying a diverse group of consumers.

3. Challenging the “Platonic Dish”

Spaghetti Sauce: The initial resistance to trying different sauce recipes stemmed from producers deferring to “experts.”  Spaghetti sauce chefs and their recipes, prior to Moskowitz, mostly stuck with tradition.  It was believed that there was a singular, best way to mass produce sauce and no one challenged the “experts.”  Moskowitz warned that this mentality would deter innovation and its byproducts.

Schools: Just like sauce producers, parents often defer to the “experts.”  Traditionally, with the exceptions of homeschoolers and private school attendees, parents would enroll their children in the neighborhood public school and this was held as the best way to mass educate students.  However, like sauce, strictly adhering to the “Platonic Dish” restricts our ability to innovate new and better ways to educate our nation’s students.

Moskowitz’s research would ultimately make Prego hundreds of millions of dollars from just their line of extra-chunky sauces.  And, if you need further evidence of Moskowitz’s impact, just spend a little extra time in the pasta aisle next time you frequent the grocery store.  Catholic schools have certainly demonstrated how catering to new tastes can spark innovation through the creation of new school formats found in Cristo Rey, the Notre Dame ACE Academies, Catholic School K-12 Virtual, the numerous single-sex schools provided, etc.  Hopefully, we will see the number of schooling options made available to parents become as expansive as our spaghetti sauce options.

This post by Fr. Tim Scully, CSC, and a reprinted excerpt from an original post at Spes Unica, a vocations and discernment blog of the Congregation of Holy Cross.


Fr. Nate Wills, C.S.C., teaching high school

In Holy Cross, we recognize the value of this providential legacy. But we also recognize that our goal isn’t just to keep the legacy alive – we’re not interested in life support or, worse, hospice! Instead, we need to bring this vision of hope boldly into the 21st century. And we need courageous witnesses to continue to take up the challenge – men like the Holy Cross pastors, priests, seminarians, and lay collaborators that you will hear from on this blog throughout Catholic Schools Week.

The central educational problem our Catholic Schools face today is captured by a dynamic that can best be summarized in three statements of fact. First: poor kids are in deep trouble. Second: there is an intervention that works. And finally: this intervention is not reaching the kids that need it.



An ACE-trained teacher in the classroom

 Poor Kids are in Trouble

First: Poor kids are in deep trouble. The most disturbing problem we face today is the gap in achievement between poor and minority children and everyone else. The stats on achievement reveal a grave injustice, which we see clearly in the circumstances of our nation’s most recently arrived—and largest—immigrant group, Latino families. While many call it an achievement gap, it’s really an opportunity gap. Many of these kids are assigned to schools that doom them to lives of poverty.

The data are well known to us:
• Black and Latino 12th graders read at the same level as White 8th graders.
• Only 52 percent of Latino children and 51 percent of Black children graduate high school in four years, compared to 72 percent of White children.
• Only 16 percent of Hispanic children and 20 percent of Black children are considered college-ready –meaning they have a high school degree, have taken the bare minimum courses required for college, and meet basic literacy standards on national tests.
But we believe there’s an intervention that works to close the achievement gap.

Catholic Schools Work
Decades of research tell us that no system of schools – charter, private, or public – has demonstrated such proven effectiveness for the children most vulnerable to unsatisfactory schooling as Catholic schools. There is no other educational intervention with a track record like ours. We know that children who attend our schools are 42% more likely to graduate from high school, and 250% more likely to graduate from college.


We know that the achievement gap among Black and Hispanic 12th graders is typically reduced or even closed when these students attend Catholic schools. We know that Catholic school graduates are likely to earn higher wages than their public school peers, more likely to vote, more civically engaged, and more committed to service when they are adults. But …


Fr. John DeRiso, C.S.C.,
at St. Joseph Grade School

This Intervention Is Not Reaching Most Kids Who Need It
Why, for example, do only 3% of United States school-age Hispanic children attend Catholic schools, when the research has demonstrated convincingly that Catholic schools are especially effective at closing the achievement gap of minority students? From the disappearance of Catholic schools in urban areas, to financial barriers, both real and perceived, to the need for pastors who will make the courageous decisions needed to run and support an excellent school, the obstacles for poor families to send their children to affordable Catholic schools are real. But, as our ancestors in the faith and predecessors in Holy Cross have demonstrated, these obstacles are surmountable with the gifts of hope, hard work, creativity, prayer, and dedication.

An ACE-trained teacher
in the classroom

The challenges stared down by past generations must serve as inspiration and a prophetic call that Catholic schools can continue to thrive in their mission to bring an excellent, faith-filled education to all who seek it, including the poorest among us. True to the charism of Holy Cross, signs of hope are present in abundance, though none are available without great effort and single-minded dedication, inspired and sealed by the grace of the Spirit. You will see many of signs and pathways to hope in this blog this week. The Congregation of Holy Cross, especially in our K-12 schools and in our universities’ commitment to providing continued talent and leadership for Catholic schools, remain “men with hope to bring” as we confront the challenges of the 21st century.

As national school choice week begins, here is a little round-up of some promising legislative and advocacy action going on around the country.

Check out the National School Choice Week website for various activities being planned in your state.

A promising scholarship tax-credit bill gets out of committee in New Jersey, where it was previously stalled for months.

There would be a limit of 3,900 scholarships in the first year, which would expand to 40,000 by the fifth year. The scholarships are expected to be about $8,000 for each elementary school student and $11,000 for each high school student.

Pennsylvania has bi-partisan support to expand school choice in the state.

Greater school choice is being proposed by a bipartisan group of state senators. Among them is Philadelphia’s own Democratic senator, Anthony Hardy Williams, who made school choice a focal point of his platform in his run for governor last year.

Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia announced a push for school choice in this legislative session, and things look promising there to move forward.

The Governor also announced legislation which will establish a tax credit for companies donating to nonprofit organizations that provide scholarships to help lower income students attend nonpublic schools.

The Department of Taxation would be responsible for issuing the tax credits. The Department would be allowed to issue up to $25 million in tax credits in each fiscal year of the Commonwealth.

Mitch Daniels in Indiana is putting forward one of the most aggressive parental choice legislative packages anywhere, with both a non-capped voucher program and a much more robust corporate tax-credit program.  He went to bat for it big time during his State of the State Address, and a recent poll suggest that Indiana voters have his back.

South Carolina has tax-credit legislation in play.

Milwaukee has the possibility of expanding their already very large voucher program.  Messmer Catholic School, the oldest in Milwaukee, continues to grow steadily.  This should be the story of all Catholic schools in Milwaukee benefiting from a more even playing field through the large voucher program.

Gov. Brian Sandoval of Nevada attacks the historically anti-Catholic Blaine Amendments as he pushes for a constitutional amendment in the upcoming session of the Nevada Legislature to allow for tax dollars to be used in a school voucher program that would include faith-based schools.

And a major national add campaign coincides to bring the issue more national prominence.

There is a lot more going on out there, I am sure, but that’s a wrap for tonight! Read the rest of this entry »

The national education reform organization, Democrats for Education Reform, are opening a chapter in Indiana and are likely to have an outspoken role in the upcoming debate in Indiana.

As the Indystar.com reported:

Every Wednesday morning for several months, a group of local Democrats has gathered for breakfast to address a tremendous problem for their party in Indiana: the idea that Democrats are obstinate roadblocks standing in the way of education reform.

The group has spent hours talking about hot-button education issues such as charter schools, teacher evaluation measures and school turnaround efforts.

But the power of the state teachers union, and the piles of cash it provides to candidates, has led many Statehouse Democrats to block changes that would significantly help students and families in areas represented by many of those same legislators.

…the early-morning group has spent months preparing for the upcoming launch of the Indiana chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, joining a national effort that has spread to several states. They will announce the formation of their group in coming days and plan to start a political action committee that will raise money for reform-minded Democratic candidates for local and state offices.

Though Democrats for Education Reform support school choice, it will be interesting to see how this particular debate plays out in Indiana.  It is likely to be the most contentious of the issues on the table.