The Impact of Charter Schools on Catholic Schools: A Comparison of Programs in Arizona and Michigan

Article excerpt

Many Catholic educators assume that charter schools pose a significant threat to Catholic schools, especially in the urban core. Through an analysis of educational policy variations in Arizona and Michigan, this article demonstrates that while charter schools pose a threat to Catholic school enrollments, they do not always do so.


The American public school system is vast. More than 15,000 school districts govern over 95,000 schools employing over 6 million people serving 50 million students and spending $500 billion per year (Hess & Finn, 2007). Public schooling, in short, is a colossus casting a very long shadow. Major reform efforts within the public education system will inevitably influence the private school sector, sometimes profoundly so.

Even as by far the nation's largest system of private schooling, at 2.3 million students (McDonald, 2006) the size of the Catholic school system pales in comparison. Nevertheless, Catholic schools have a proud tradition of outperforming public schools, in particular with disadvantaged students. In vast swaths of urban America today, Catholic schools remain the highest performing schools available to inner-city youth.

Americans have been attempting to reform and improve public schools since the launch of Sputnik in the 1950s. Education reformers have tried everything from increased spending to progressive instruction techniques to expanded early childhood education, smaller class sizes, and even open classrooms. Through it all, the most reliable test scores available (Perie, Moran, & Lutkus, 2005) have remained stubbornly flat since the early 1970s.

With far greater spending per pupil and without improved learning, the productivity of spending in the public education system plummeted. In addition, there has been a growing recognition of the inequities of the public education system. In recent years, reformers have focused on addressing the racial achievement gap.

Parental choice in education has emerged as a major education reform movement since 1990. Choice programs within the public school sphere, in the form of open-enrollment programs, magnet schools, and charter schools, have become ubiquitous. Choice programs including private school options--including school voucher and tuition tax credit programs--have advanced at a slower pace, but have gained momentum in recent years.

The great hope of market-based reformers is two-fold. First, by creating competition for students, choice reformers hope to provide better schooling opportunities for those choosing to participate. In addition, they hope to create healthy pressure upon the public school system to improve. Scholars have provided evidence that existing choice programs have achieved both of these aims (Greene, 2000; Hoxby, 2001). Second, choice supporters believe that a competitive system for students will lead to the creation of superior school models. Under a near monopoly, no incentive exists to create a better mousetrap. Competition creates this incentive.

Expanded parental choice contains both promise and peril for the Catholic school system. Private choice systems have succeeded in reducing and in some cases fully eliminating the longstanding discrimination in funding against private religious schools.

Preliminary evidence suggests, however, that charter schools are actually threatening to Catholic schools. A RAND Corporation study focusing on the impact of charter schools in Michigan found that private schools were taking a bigger hit from charter school competition than public schools on a student for student basis. "Private schools will lose one student for every three students gained in the charter schools" (Toma, Zimmer, & Jones, 2006, pp. 13-14) the study concluded. Ronald Nuzzi, director of the Alliance for Catholic Education Leadership Program at the University of Notre Dame asserted that charter schools "are one of the biggest threats to Catholic schools in the inner city, hands down. …