The Next 200 Years: Studying the Long-Term Effects of Catholic-to-Charter “Conversion”

In 2014, Andrew Kelly and I wrote Sector Switchers: Why Catholic Schools Convert to Charters and What Happens Next, an examination of 18 formerly Catholic schools that had “converted” (sorry, we couldn’t help ourselves) into charter schools. With the recent news that the much-vaunted Jubilee Catholic schools in Memphis were looking to pursue the Catholic-to-charter path, I decided to revisit that paper. Where are those schools now? What do we know now that we didn’t know then?

Before I begin, I do want to reiterate a point made in that paper several years ago. We used—and I will use—the term “convert” because there simply isn’t a great term to describe what happened to these schools. Many of those who were affiliated with them as Catholic schools emphasize that when the Catholic school closed, it closed, and a new school opened in its place. We offered terms from the business world like “divesting” to describe what’s happening, but that didn’t necessarily do it justice either. For now, noting that it is a contentious term, we’ll talk about conversion.

It’s probably easiest to look at these schools geographically.

Washington, D.C.
In 2009, six Catholic schools closed and reopened as the Center City Public Charter schools. As we noted at the time, this caused a substantial increase in the number of students that attended those schools. While in the last year of data for the Catholic schools, we saw a total enrollment of only 988 students; by 2012, it had grown to 1,381 students.
Did that strong growth continue in the years following? Not really. The most recent data, from 2016, places the total enrollment of those schools at just 1,438 students, a net gain of 57 students across the entire network. At the same time, the total number of students in charter schools in the district has been on the rise, from 29,366 students in 2012 to 41,506 in 2016.

The 10 Catholic schools that became charter schools in Florida were marked by huge increases in enrollment post-conversion. While they had previously educated only 1,489 students as Catholic schools, by 2012, they educated a combined 3,431. If trends continued, several thousand more students would be able to attend these schools.
The trends did not continue. Florida data from the 2017–18 school year puts total enrollment in those 10 schools at 3,676, just 245 students more than they served six years ago. Several schools actually lost enrollment, some substantially. And, all of this happened while charter schooling in Florida boomed, growing from 179,940 children in the 2011–12 school year to 283,755 in 2016–17.

Perhaps the most interesting case, though, comes from the two schools in Indianapolis that converted to charters in 2010. Today, neither of them operate as charter schools. One, Andrew Academy, had its charter revoked in 2014 and closed, and the other, Padua Academy, closed as a charter and re-opened as a Catholic school.

We had presaged some of these issues (Andrew Academy was already struggling at the time we wrote the paper) and mentioned the irony that these schools had chosen to convert on the eve of Indiana’s passage of its school voucher law. As it turns out, Padua, now St. Anthony Catholic School, would end up taking advantage of the voucher program after all.

So what can we make of all of this, with a few more years of wisdom? I can think of three things:

1. There is no lack of charter school choices in these areas. There is a lack of Catholic school choice.

There was, and continues to be, support in the Catholic, charter and education reform communities for converting struggling Catholic schools into charter schools. Insofar as closing Catholic schools leaves children with fewer choices, this strategy makes sense.

The issue though, is that in many of the communities where these schools are closing, students have a lot of choices. It’s not 2008 anymore.

Charter schools have grown substantially and school districts are offering more choices than perhaps ever before. What’s missing now is diversity of choice. What if you want a choice beyond charter and district? What if you want a religious education for your child? What if you want to send your child to a Catholic school? This strategy can’t help.

2. Conversion allowed these schools to stay open, but did not spark a wider Renaissance.

I’ll admit, given some of the rhetoric of the folks I interviewed in writing that paper, I hoped that, several years down the road, these schools would be much bigger than they are now. Serving hundreds more students well would help temper the disappointment of schools losing their Catholic identity. That growth did not happen.

It is also not clear the extent to which revenues from the buildings have been able to support remaining Catholic schools in Florida and Washington, D.C., as they were intended. In fact, anecdotally, I’ve heard that several of the Catholic schools that remained open that were supposed to be helped by the revenue from the strategic divestiture are struggling just as much as they were before. (If someone reading this has the inside scoop, please disabuse me of this impression.)

3. Costs have become clearer over time.

At roughly the same time our paper was released, Nicole Stelle Garnett and Peg Brinig published Lost Classroom, Lost Community, a magisterial examination of the social effects of closing Catholic schools. They found that when Catholic schools close, the effects are felt beyond the academics of the children who attend the school. It causes a tear in the social fabric of the community in which that school operated.

Interestingly, they did not find that charter schools sewed this fabric back together. There was something about Catholic schools that was unique. That was not factored into our analysis, and certainly tempers my view of the phenomenon today.

Given what we’ve seen out of Memphis, it is clear that the Catholic-to-Charter “conversion” talk is far from over. Continuing to follow schools that have taken that step to see how they fare in the years afterwards can help inform that conversation.