Momentous and sad news for Catholic schools was buried in the last paragraph of our Brooklyn Bishop DiMarzio's most recent column for the diocesan newspaper, The Tablet: Plans are indeed afoot to turn three Catholic parochial schools in the Brooklyn Diocese into charter schools. The proposal, previously discussed in a surprise joint press conference by the bishop and Mayor Bloomberg, had only been in the exploratory stages before; this seems to represent a marked hardening into reality. Of course, the bishop didn't say which three schools, leaving the field open for the rumor-mongering and Maalox-guzzling that understandably haunt the beleagured ranks of our parochial school communities.
Jake and Elwood (above) wouldn't approve, and neither do I. The proposal has being floated as a way to "preserve" quality education in the same building, giving dibs to the formerly Catholic school's students and even its staff. In reality, it would amount to the Church leasing its building to the new public-school entity, removing any sign of religious identity, and banning religion from the curriculum (fittingly, since the school would now be funded by taxpayer dollars). The promise to preserve teachers' jobs may founder on the public-school system's requirements for certification, a technicality many of our wonderful teachers lack and could only obtain through costly further education. And the experience of Catholic-turned-charter schools down in Washington, D.C., where this new "model" was first rolled out just last year, bodes ill, not well, for "strengthening" the surviving schools. (See this article for wince-inducing details like a teacher whose classroom has an "empty nail" where a cross used to hang and kids now reciting "values" instead of prayers.)
Nonetheless, since a flip to charters could turn under-enrolled Catholic schools into ATMs for cash-strapped dioceses, the gambit is being eagerly watched by Catholic educators all over the country. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the first unholy trinity of schools to qualify for the Empty Nail Award. The diocese seems genuine in its determination to prune and eventually transform the parochial school system into a leaner, more independent constellation of "academies," along the lines of the still-thriving private Catholic high schools; it is hard to see how this sure-to-be-controversial venture will not muddy the waters of those good intentions.