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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The worst thing to happen to Catholic schools? Charter schools

From the, by Scott Waldman

Charter schools, which were created as competition for traditional public schools, have been detrimental for parochial education, a new study contends.

In Albany and other cities across the country, an unintended casualty of charter schools has been Catholic schools, which anchored their communities for well over a century, said Abe Lackman, the study's author and government scholar in residence at Albany Law School, who spent a year collecting data and studying the effect of charter schools in Albany.

"We've wound up replacing a good system with a system that is inferior, and it's cost the taxpayer a good deal of money," he said Monday.

For every charter school that has opened in New York in the past decade, a parochial school has closed, Lackman states in the report that will be published next month in the Albany Law Review.

In Albany, the drop has been precipitous and has cost taxpayers millions of dollars and wiped out "good schools" along the way, the report states.

Albany's parochial schools have lost a staggering 65 percent of their enrollment, double the statewide average. In 1998, before charters were introduced, Albany had seven Catholic elementary schools and a high school with 1,812 students. By the 2011-12 school year, four elementary schools had closed and enrollment plummeted to 575. At the city's only parochial high school, Bishop Maginn, enrollment declined for years. Annual tuition is about $6,000.

Parents are choosing charter schools because they are free and have some of the highest results on state tests compared to other schools in the city, said Chris Bender, executive director of the Brighter Choice Foundation, which supports all of Albany's charter schools. He said parents would have kept their children in the parochial schools if they thought that was the best option. "We're more concerned with where they're going, not with where they're coming from," he said.

He said charter schools have had a minimal effect on the city's Catholic schools and virtually all of their students come from families that may not have resources to pay for private school tuition. He called Lackman's study "deeply flawed" because it did not track the reasons individual students left parochial schools or make an effort to see if they enrolled in a charter school. Bender said Brighter Choice, through a donor, has sent more than $2 million in scholarships to the city's parochial schools since 1998.

The new superintendent of schools for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, Michael Pizzingrillo, did not return a call seeking comment. Former Superintendent Sister Jane Herb has said charter schools do not have a track record of success and imitate the "values-based" education long at the center of a Catholic education. At least two Albany charters were located in recently closed parochial schools.

Parochial schools have been losing students for years, said Bill Phillips, president of the New York Charter School Association and a former parochial school board member. He said the parochial schools do not charge enough tuition to fund their operations.

"Parochial school enrollment has been declining for almost four decades and charter schools have only been around for 13 years, so obviously it's more than charter schools that are the problem," he said.

Charter schools are publicly funded and privately run. Lackman, who helped negotiate the state legislation that started the charter school system in New York, said it was created to break a monopoly on public education by offering more choice. He said that has been a costly proposition for taxpayers, which was not the original intent of the law that brought them into being in 1999. He said charter schools have not been revenue-neutral, as they were supposed to be.

Of Albany's charter population of about 2,400, Lackman estimates, about 1,000 would once have chosen parochial schools. Now that those students are back in a school supported by taxpayers, they cost the city and state an additional $14 million a year. That's a large chunk of the $35 million the city will send to charter schools this year.

"I believe charter schools are a fundamental existential threat to the Catholic system and I don't see how many will survive," he said. "They are clearly marketing themselves as an alternative to parochial schools, which was never the intent."

The study uses as an example the former St. Casimir's School on Sheridan Avenue. It was closed in 2009 after 112 years, not long after three charter school competitors opened within walking distance. Now, two of those schools — New Covenant Charter School and Achievement Academy Charter School — are also closed, leaving one of the city's most troubled neighborhoods with even more boarded-up buildings.

Indeed, Brighter Choice schools on their website are advertised as tuition-free schools similar to that found at "private academies."

Lackman said charters promote themselves as offering the same qualities that have set parochial schools apart from traditional public schools for years, including rigorous discipline, uniforms and longer school days.

Albany currently has 10 charter schools, but another one will be closed at the end of the year for poor performance. There are three in Troy, including one in a former parochial school. • 518-454-5080 • @518Schools

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