The Intersection of Religious Charter Schools and Urban Catholic Education: A Literature Review

Article excerpt

Two salient trends in American education--urban Catholic elementary school closings and charter school growth--provide the immediate background for this paper. Catholic schools are facing numerous threats to their sustainability and the growth of public charter schools is perceived by some education experts as one of these threatening factors (Hamilton, 2008; Lackman, 2012; Saroki & Levenick, 2009). This paper analyzes how an emerging form of schooling--"religious" charter schools--may influence the future of urban Catholic elementary education in America. The most succinct, catch-all definition of religious charter schools offered in the literature posits that a school may be considered a religious charter school or "faith-based" in the broadest sense of the term "because the parents started it because of their faith" (Weinberg, 2008, p. 146). However, this does not necessarily mean that the founders view their school as faith-based or religious. Even though this description may sound confusing, contradictory, or even esoteric, the existence of these schools demands scholarly attention.

Within the public charter school sector, there are particular schools that fall into this subclassification--religious charter schools--and based upon the literature the implications of their existence and potential growth are increasingly significant for the Catholic school sector. However, there is not currently a clear consensus regarding a working definition of religious charter schools (Weinberg, 2009). In addition, there is no synthesis of the literature or research-based investigation of the potential challenges and benefits that religious charter schools may pose to Catholic education. This paper offers the first synthesis of religious charter school literature with a specific focus on the relationship between religious charter schools and Catholic education in the United States.

Catholic School Closings

The American Catholic school system reached its pinnacle in the mid-1960s. In 1965-1966, 13,292 Catholic schools enrolled approximately 5.6 million students (Convey, 1992). The National Catholic Education Association (NCEA) statistics for the 2011-2012 academic year reveal that Catholic school enrollment is just over 2 million students in 6,841 schools. This is more than 60% fewer students and just over half the number of schools compared to the mid-1960s (McDonald, 2012). However, there is an even greater concern regarding Catholic school closing trends in the urban or inner-city sector compared to Catholic schools in general with the most serious closing trends found in the elementary schools (McDonald, 2009; United States Department of Education [USDOE], 2008).

Charter Schools

At the same time that urban Catholic elementary schools are experiencing drastic declines, another trend related to urban education is moving in an opposite direction--the rapid growth of charter schools (Center for Education Reform, 2010; Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, 2009; USDOE, 2011). A charter school is a publicly funded school that operates independently of the local school district with the intent of providing greater autonomy and accountability for the individual school. The Center for Education Reform (2009) states that charter schools are "innovative public schools that are accountable for student results" that are designed by educators, parents, or civic leaders; open and attended by choice; and free from most rules and regulations governing conventional public schools (para. 1).

A charter school may also operate in pursuit of a specific set of educational objectives determined by the school's developer and agreed to by the authorized public chartering agency (USDOE, 2004). In fact, the U.S. Department of Education (1997) found that the most common reasons for founding charter schools are: to realize an educational vision; have more autonomy over organizational, personnel, or governance matters; serve a special population; receive public funds; engender parent involvement and ownership; or attract students and parents. …