TWICE IN THE SPAN OF 10 YEARS, the Archdiocese of Washington summoned help from an array of leaders in the nation’s capital to preserve its struggling inner-city Catholic schools. The similarities between these two efforts were striking. Both were instigated by serious financial challenges and both were led by archbishops committed to serving disadvantaged children. One significant difference, however, distinguished the two efforts: the first maintained the schools’ affiliation with the Catholic Church; the second resulted in seven schools converting into secular public charter schools.
This study chronicles and analyzes the second experience, the best known and recent example of a Catholic diocese using the chartering mechanism to save a set of its schools from closure. On a number of fronts, those involved were blazing a new trail, facing novel questions and challenges. Their collective experiences provide invaluable lessons for other cities and religious communities contemplating the future of their financially struggling inner-city faith-based schools.
The purpose of this case study is not to advocate a certain course of action—such as mass conversion of Catholic schools into charters or staunch opposition to any further such conversions—but rather to learn from the pioneers of this strategy in Washington: how was it done, what worked, what did not, and what lessons should others struggling to sustain their Catholic schools glean?