Charter schools and religion

I’ve noticed that I provoke more response whenever I mention charter schools. But one of the biggest charter school debates has not yet, as far as I can tell, erupted in Utah.

What do we do about charter schools that attempt to meet the needs of religious communities or replicate the virtues of religious schools . . . without violating constitutional boundaries?

In several states, legal battles are raging over schools that offer Hebrew or Arabic and make accommodations for Jewish and Muslim students. These schools do not teach religion, but they do make it easier for their students and their families to practice their religion.

What has intrigued me most, however, is the effort by several Catholic dioceses to preserve inner city Catholic schools that have served their disadvantaged students especially well, but cannot remain open as private religious schools in the face of dwindling church resources and parental impoverishment.

What follows is commentary that I posted on another blog: lawreligionethics.org

I recently had the opportunity to read a draft article by Notre Dame Law professors Margaret Brinig and Nicole Garnett (I am citing this article with their permission). The article, “Catholic Schools and Broken Windows,” examines the impact of Catholic school closures on inner city Chicago neighborhoods. The “broken windows” refers to the now famous theory, first posited by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, that small, seemingly insignificant signs of disorder, such as broken windows, litter, and graffiti, engender much more significant consequences, because such disorder “signals to would-be offenders that residents of a community cannot, or choose not, to control socially deviant behaviors, including serious crime.”

The authors present extensive evidence that neighborhoods that lose their Catholic schools descend into greater disorder and eventually experience increased crime. Obviously there are issues of correlation versus causation, which the authors acknowledge and attempt to address. And frankly, I lack the statistical sophistication to evaluate their analysis properly, though it seems persuasive to me. What got me thinking, however, was a different link between the broken windows hypothesis and Catholic schools.

It strikes me that Catholic school principals and teachers in fact embraced a version of the broken windows hypothesis long before this catchy phrase surfaced in academic discourse. More specifically, Catholic schools’ relentless insistence that students wear uniforms, walk in orderly lines, observe decorum in the hallway and generally obey a myriad of sometimes petty rules reflected a profound conviction that faithfulness in these small things would encourage learning. The link between enforced order and educational excellence may have been obvious to the nuns, but as the twentieth century progressed it flew in the face of an educational establishment that embraced creativity and individuality and eyed rules with increasing skepticism.

Since reams of evidence demonstrate – and even newly-converted educational choice opponent Diane Ravitch acknowledges – that Catholic schools produce superior educational results at a much lower per student cost, especially for the most disadvantaged students, I am not going to defend the Catholic model now. But I would like to suggest that the broken windows theory, if it is correct, still plays out just a little differently within schools than it does within communities.

To quote the article, “communities that fail to curb physical and social disorder . . . become vulnerable to serious crime for at least two related reasons. First, unchecked disorder frightens law-abiding citizens, causing them to avoid public places and eventually . . . to move away. . . Second, disorder sends signals to would-be offenders that communities plagued by disorder are “safe” places to commit crimes: The community’s failure to check disorder suggests that residents cannot – or choose not to – control socially detrimental behaviors and conditions.”

This all seems quite plausible to me – but I don’t think this is quite how it works with children and young adults. Yes, many are frightened (if also titillated) by disorder, but in reality relatively few students want to be empowered to enforce the social norms that combat disorder. How many kids will ask the class clown to stop entertaining them with his or her antics so the rest of them can learn? How many teenagers will applaud the administration’s wisdom in encouraging them to trade in their low-slung, skin-tight jeans for ill-fitting khaki pants? My own experience as a Catholic middle and high school teacher suggests that one of the great virtues of Catholic schools is that students can engage in harmless bouts of anarchy, confident that someone else will enforce order. Broken windows theorists encourage a partnership between the police and the community, where they share responsibility for enforcing order. In Catholic schools, students know and accept that the grownups are in charge.

This may seem to be a hair-splitting distinction, but I think it has two important implications for the future of Catholic schools. First, for the traditional fix or prevent broken windows solution to succeed within schools, the grownups have to be perceived as legitimate enforcers. In other words, students may indulge themselves grousing about the school authorities, but they and their parents fundamentally accept that teachers and administrators have a right to impose their particular, perhaps rather persnickety, vision of order. Second, the grownups have to perceive themselves as legitimate enforcers. As any classroom teacher will tell you, students probe mercilessly for uncertainty and weakness – one reason why the first year of teaching is almost always an ordeal for all concerned. (Of course community police face many of the same challenges . . . but they carry guns and wield the punitive power of the state.)

Catholic schools now face a challenge on both grounds. Much of their teachers’ perceived legitimacy came from their religious authority, undergirded by a theology and church structure that accepted and even extolled hierarchy. Clergy sex scandals and the virtual disappearance of teaching nuns and brothers have undermined the religious basis of this authority, while the whole notion of hierarchy is increasingly under attack even within the church. Moreover, Catholic school educators – like all educators – are inundated with admonitions to transform themselves from classroom dictators into facilitators and coaches. Some of this neo-Rousseauian advice makes sense: Students do learn better when they are engaged in class discussion and believe their voices are genuinely heard. But by sending the signal to grownups that they shouldn’t always try to be in charge, the prevailing educational ethos still potentially undermines order in the schools.

It gets worse. Just as Catholic schools have been most disproportionately successful with disadvantaged children, these threats to the legitimacy of adult control of schools are likely to be disproportionately harmful in neighborhoods where children already live in a high degree of disorder and many of the adults in their lives have abdicated responsibility. Again, I was struck how in my Catholic school some of the students who benefited most from the enforced discipline were those who were living in very difficult family environments. Our assistant regularly held their feet to the fire. For some students, at least, this was a welcome sign that someone cared.
The Catholic Church, to its credit, is struggling to maintain this ministry to poor neighborhoods and endangered children. One strategy, which is being pursued in several cities including New York City, Washington, D.C., Indianapolis and Miami, is to transform Catholic schools into charter schools. The hope is that these schools can somehow retain the commitment to values, order and educational opportunity even as they relinquish the teaching, and trappings, of religion.

Maybe this strategy will work. I hope it will work, even though I would prefer to see school districts provide vouchers to preserve genuinely Catholic schools. My worry is that these ex-Catholic charter schools will succeed for awhile, as the existing staff preserves the Catholic school culture, and then gradually deteriorate. Will administrators and teachers be able to preserve their belief in hierarchy and authority without its religious underpinnings? Will they be able to resist educational establishment’s relentlessly anti-authoritarian message?

I’m afraid we’ll start to hear breaking glass.

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