Conversion Anxiety: Parochial-To-Charter-School Transitions Spark Concern

The creative folks at the Archdiocese of Miami think they have found a new group of donors to bail out their financially strapped parishes and parochial schools: the taxpayers of Florida.

According to Florida Catholic, several Catholic schools in South Florida that closed due to declining enrollment or money problems reopened this fall as publicly funded charter schools.

"What was intended as a pilot program at one parish – Corpus Christi in Wynwood – will become, for financial reasons, the norm at seven more," the diocesan newspaper reported.

Charters, the newspaper said, opened in August where five other Catholic schools closed last June: Sacred Heart, Our Lady of Divine Providence in Sweetwater, St. Francis Xavier in Overtown, St. Stephen in Miramar and St. Clement in Fort Lauderdale.

A seventh charter opened at St. Malachy in Tamarac, and an eighth opened in Miami Gardens, in a building used by St. Monica School.

Because they are publicly funded, the charter schools reportedly are not teaching religion, but church officials offer religious instruction immediately after the close of the school day.

In two cases, the principals of the charter schools are the same individuals who held those jobs when the schools were Catholic. And teachers and staff also sometimes hold the same jobs they held before.

Brenda Dawson, principal of the former St. Francis Xavier School, now serves as principal at Theodore R. and Thelma A. Gibson Charter School, which is operating at the old parochial school. She urged parents to give the charter school a try.

"We really encouraged them that, though it's not a Catholic school, you've got the same principal. You've got the same values. I'm Catholic. My husband is a deacon," Dawson told Florida Catholic.

To sweeten the deal, the parishes are being paid rent for use of the parochial school facilities. According to the newspaper, rental income ranges between $150,000 and $350,000 this first year, depending on the size, capacity and condition of the facilities.

"In nearly every case," the newspaper said, "the rental income will allow the parishes to pay their bills and stay open. The churches also retain the right to use the facilities after school hours."

Is all this constitutional? Maybe.

To know that, we need the answers to several questions.

Will there be adequate state monitoring to ensure that religion isn't taught in these "public" charter schools? Will the curriculum be modified to conform to church doctrines and dogma? Will administrators, faculty and staff be hired on a strictly nondiscriminatory basis or will some qualified people be rejected because they don't follow church rules?

Will priests and other church officials have an ongoing relationship with the students at the charter school? Will statuary, crucifixes and other religious emblems be removed from the school classrooms and grounds?

Many churches include provisions in property leases that forbid any activity that contravenes denominational teachings. Will instruction about reproductive issues or HIV prevention in health classes be based on sound scientific and medical research or will it be revised to conform to Catholic doctrine?

Ironically, some of the greatest concern about the Florida parochial/charter school conversions comes from Catholics who worry that Catholic education will be hurt by the switch to secular education.

The Florida parochial/charter move is part of a national trend. Similar transitions have taken place with Catholic schools in the District of Columbia, New York and Texas. Islamic, Jewish and fundamentalist Christian leaders in some communities are trying the same thing.

The Obama administration is pressing hard for a proliferation of charter schools around America. This push should be accompanied by clear rules upholding the separation of church and state.