“An Inescapable Moral Challenge”

by Robert Pondiscio
April 25th, 2011

For every charter school recently opened in Harlem, two Catholic schools have had to close because of financial trouble, observes Sol Stern in City Journal.  It’s a pattern that is mirrored across New York City.  “Since inner-city Catholic schools have historically provided lifesaving educational choices for minorities and the poor,” he writes, ”the result has been a net loss of good schools for Gotham.”

Stern’s piece profiles Harlem’s St. Aloysius School, a pre-K through eighth-grade Catholic school, which has essentially “charterized” itself to survive.  The school’s board last year broke away from the New York archdiocese and reconstituted itself as an independent Catholic school.  “St. Aloysius is now something like a charter school within the city’s Catholic education sector,” Stern writes. 

St. Aloysius easily bests neighborhood schools on standardized tests despite a refusal to make testing and test prep a centerpiece of its classroom practice.  (“At St. Aloysius, there are no teacher bonuses tied to testing, students receive no special recognition for high scores, and very little test prep takes place,” Stern writes.)  It also more than matches the results posted by the Harlem Children’s Zone Promise Academy, featured prominently in Waiting for Superman.   And St. Aloysius gets these results for about $9000 per pupil per year–less than half of the cost of New York’s neighborhood schools and the roughly $13,000 that charter schools get from the city.    Stern says several factors may explain the school’s success, including extended learning time and separating boys and girls beginning in the sixth grade.

“It doesn’t take long, though, for a visitor to discover St. Aloysius’s most powerful asset: the rich content of its classroom instruction. St. Aloysius exemplifies the old-fashioned notion that school is a place where children learn about our civilization’s shared knowledge and values and where teachers remain the undisputed authorities in the classroom, imparting that knowledge and those values through a coherent grade-by-grade curriculum. This traditional approach has stood the test of time and is still proving itself today in many inner-city Catholic schools, in the “no excuses” charter schools operated by the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), in schools that have adopted E. D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum, and, to some extent, even in run-of-the-mill Massachusetts public schools that adhere to that state’s back-to-basics curriculum reforms.”

 Such schools, Stern writes, represent “an inescapable moral challenge” to the education-philanthropy community. 

“It is painfully obvious that without a rescue effort, the number of Catholic schools in neighborhoods like Harlem will continue to shrink. The money certainly exists to mount such a rescue; for years, this glittering city has been awash in private philanthropic and foundation funds—hundreds of millions and perhaps billions of dollars—spent on an assortment of education-reform schemes, including charter schools, the creation of small public high schools, and bonuses for teachers and administrators.”

 When a school “that creates such effective classrooms for disadvantaged children, and that also builds character and personal responsibility in its students, still has to worry about where next year’s dollars will come from” he concludes “there remains a fundamental imbalance in these charitable efforts.”



  1. What if Catholic schools were disappearing but being replaced by truly competitive charter schools? Explain how that would be a bad thing.

    Comment by Glenn — April 25, 2011 @ 10:17 am

  2. As Stern’s piece says, Catholic schools are disappearing faster than good charters are being created to replace them. And in the case of the school he profiles, it’s cheaper and better performing (or at least equal to) the best charters in the neighborhood.

    The moral question posed is why let good schools close at all?

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — April 25, 2011 @ 10:54 am

  3. Robert,
    This is an important article, with some excellent points. It reinforces the idea that children can perform well without a myopic focus on testing. They test well because they have good teachers and a school that lives its values in the classroom. Catholic schools also teach kids about moral issues related to social justice better than any public school. These kids end up understanding the root causes of social issues and become valuable, engaged citizens.

    Comment by Marilyn Price-Mitchell — April 25, 2011 @ 11:02 am

  4. Sadly, the Catholic church has no money left for parochial schools because of the legal fees it has incurred surrounding the plethora of priests’ sexual abuse cases.

    BTW, did anyone happen to see Sixty Minutes a couple of weeks back with its inside look at the opulence still in existence in the Vatican? Mind-boggling! Makes you wonder why they couldn’t use some of those assets to continue to fund schools in poor/minority communities from around the globe?

    Comment by Paul Hoss — April 25, 2011 @ 11:53 am

  5. If the Catholic schools are so great at educating kids, they wouldn’t be disappearing in the first place.

    Comment by Anonymous — April 25, 2011 @ 3:41 pm

  6. The demise of the Catholic schools has nothing to do with the quality of education provided and very little to do with the clergy abuse scandal. The biggest factor is the dramatic decline in the number of nuns in the past half-century. Parochial schools used to be able to charge very low tuition because they did not have to pay the nuns a salary or fringe benefits to teach. Now that Catholic schools have to hire lay teachers, their costs have skyrocketed. In turn, the tuition hikes have priced out many families.

    To send our 3 kids would cost around $25k per year total for elementary and around $45k per year for high school. And that’s assuming that we stop at 3 (we hope God blesses us with at least one more). That’s not in our budget, so we homeschool. The number of Catholic homeschoolers has dramatically increased over the past couple of decades.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — April 26, 2011 @ 10:55 am

  7. The Catholic schools are selective with whom they choose to admit. They’re businesses, which means that they only want the kids who are going to do well academically. Those who score high on the ACT/SAT will give the school a good reputation, allow it to charge a high tuition, and make a large profit.

    The public schools are lousy, and so are the private schools.

    Comment by Anonymous — April 26, 2011 @ 12:30 pm

  8. How much does the demise of Catholic schools have to do with shifting demographics? The neighborhood in Philly where my former husband attended school is now an upscale Yuppie enclave with very few children living in the area. The shift of many from the city to the burbs does not automatically mean the Catholic schools follow.

    Comment by Cindy — April 26, 2011 @ 1:17 pm

  9. @ Anonymous- the Catholic schools in my area may practice selective admissions, but they sure as heck are not making fat profits. Even with the pricey tuition, they still rely fairly heavily on subsidies from the affiliated parish and the archdiocese. Without those, they’d be charging what the secular privates charge (double or triple).

    Comment by Crimson Wife — April 26, 2011 @ 10:29 pm

  10. @Crimson Wife-My point was that the very fact that the Catholic schools are selective with whom they choose to admit proves that they’re no better at teaching low performing students than than the public schools. The subsides that you speak of are a backdoor way that the Catholic schools use to increase tuition and thus attract the types of students whose parents are wealthy and gave their kids lots of preparation before applying to the school. Subsides, as anyone can learn from Econ 101, will cause prices to go up for consumers whom the business targets because the business has an incentive to increase profits beyond the normal market level, even if the product being put out by the business is lousy.

    Comment by Anonymous — April 27, 2011 @ 12:53 pm

  11. Umm, the subsidies *DECREASE* the amount of tuition charged. The Catholic schools are far cheaper than the secular private schools in the area because their costs are offset to a certain amount by support from the parish & archdiocese. The demographics of the Catholic school students skew more middle-class than those of the secular privates. Driving by the schools during drop-off time, you’ll see Hondas and Toyotas rather than exclusively Mercedes and BMW’s like at the chi-chi secular privates

    Comment by Crimson Wife — April 28, 2011 @ 11:24 am

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