When it comes to K–12 education policy, the post-Covid period has become, more than almost anything else, the era of school choice. This success has opened new avenues for its growth and confronted choice supporters—particularly Catholic school supporters—with an important decision. Should we focus our energy on breaking down the lines between public (charter) and private school choice programs, or strive to put private school choice programs themselves on a more equal footing?
Before addressing that question, we need to understand why choice advocates have more momentum now than ever. It starts with the momentum in statehouses. This year, Indiana, South Carolina, Arkansas, Florida, Utah, and Iowa have either created or expanded their voucher and/or “universal” education savings account (ESA) programs. In Florida alone, more than 3 million students, including those currently attending public school, are now eligible to participate in private school choice. These bills came on the heels of nineteen states that had either passed new or expanding existing choice programs in 2021 and 2022. Together, that means that the number of students who have access to school choice has expanded from roughly 500,000 to well over 3 million. In the slow-moving world of education, this is a policy equivalent of a tsunami.
Not only has the policy environment changed, but during the same period, the number of students taking advantage of private school choice programs has increased, as has the number of students enrolled in public charter schools and Catholic schools.
Some of the enrollment increases Catholic and charter schools have enjoyed over the past few years are undoubtedly tied to the dissatisfaction so many parents experienced with how their local public school handled Covid—particularly in areas where school closures lasted far longer than was prudent or necessary. In fact, if our pandemic experience taught us anything about meeting diverse student needs, particularly in times of crisis, it’s that there is no one-size-fits-all system that can serve every child or every community. Traditional public schools offer one important option in a community, but so do independent, charter, and parochial schools.
At the same time, the increase in Catholic school enrollment, as significant as it was, was no doubt slowed down by the fact that there are still many communities that do not offer publicly funded scholarships, tax credits, or ESAs for parents whose children attend private or parochial schools.
What else can we do to ensure that every family that wants a Catholic education for their child can get one?
Continuing the push to expand private school choice options is one path, but another has emerged as a result of a recent U.S. Supreme Court case. The 2022 Carson v. Makin decision affirmed that it is permissible for public funding to flow to religious schools and asserted that, if a state chooses to fund secular private schools, religious organizations cannot be excluded from the program. That is important because it suggests that it may be unconstitutional for states that fund charter schools to deny charters to religious organizations simply because of their faith.
In other words: Carson v. Makin suggests that, if states fund secular charter schools, they must fund religious charter schools, too.
That question is already being tested in Oklahoma, where the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa applied to the state for a charter to open what would become the nation’s first religious charter school, St. Isodore of Seville. (The state denied the first application but has given the school thirty days to reapply—a window that ends this week.)
While this suggests that a door may soon open for Catholic schools to receive funding as charter schools, choice advocates in general, and Catholic school advocates in particular, would do well to pause and consider whether pursuing a path of state-chartered religious schools is a good idea.
To be sure, particularly in states where there appears to be little hope of passing private school choice policies, the ability to apply to the state for charter school funding would clear a path to sustainability for struggling urban Catholic schools. As a superintendent who runs urban Catholic schools serving students from under-resourced communities in a choice state (Ohio) and a non-choice state (New York), the promise of public funding in the latter could be game-changing. It would allow us to grow our network and would help support a sector that has been in free fall for decades.
At the same time, there are at least three things that give me pause before I would consider jumping on the “religious charter school” bandwagon.
The problem of bureaucracy. While Catholic schools do not have access to the same funding streams as public and charter schools, we do have true autonomy over how we run our schools—and we are freed from much of the bureaucratic reporting requirements that add time and overhead, but often little value. Charter schools were initially created with this idea in mind—on the promise of “autonomy in exchange for accountability.” Unfortunately, charter schools today are shackled with many—perhaps more—reporting requirements than traditional public schools. In a 2017 piece, then Colorado Charter League President Benjamin J. Lindquist argued that overregulation is “the biggest threat to the charter sector today because it undermines its ability to offer distinctive, high-quality options to students and families with differing needs and preferences.”
That means that, in order for religious schools to access government funding, we would be knowingly giving up autonomy in exchange for what would likely be excessive government bureaucracy and regulation.
In fact, in states with both charter laws and publicly funded scholarship programs for private schools, entrepreneurial education leaders seeking the freedom-accountability trade-off charters once enjoyed are increasingly looking to the private sector for expansion. See, for example, the recent move by Great Hearts, a network of classical charter schools, which opened their first private, faith-based school in Arizona as soon as the state’s universal ESA bill passed.
The problem of liberty. Second, once religious organizations agree to run charter schools, it remains to be seen what limits on their religious liberty they would be pressured to accept. Would they, for instance, continue to enjoy the freedom to choose their curriculum? To set policy that aligns with their faith? To give preference to Catholic students, teachers, and leaders?
This relates to the question of whether charter schools are public or private. For the past two decades, charter leaders have built their advocacy strategy on the idea that charter schools are public schools. Indeed, for many years, leading charter advocates have worked hard to get people to call them “public charter schools” to reinforce this point. A case currently making its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court—Charter Day School v. Peltier—will address this question directly, and will undoubtedly have broad implications for the viability of “religious charter schools.” If the Court declares that charter schools are public schools, the question of religious liberty will become murky.
If, on the other hand, the Court decides that charter schools are private schools, and therefore not subject to the same rules and regulations that govern traditional public schools, then the future of charter schools, particularly in blue states, may very well be threatened.
The problem of coalitions. That brings the final point: While we are currently enjoying broad and growing support for private school choice, we risk significantly fragmenting that support in pursuit of religious charter schools. Charter leaders around the country have already roundly denounced the idea. Nina Rees, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, for example, said “this movement was never about private education. It was about public schools and making them better by making them more responsive to the needs of families.” What kind of success can we have with a policy that pits Catholic school advocates against charter school advocates?
Worse, for those who support both charters and private school choice, the idea of religious charter schools may well threaten both. That is to say, if the Court ultimately rules that states that fund secular charters must fund religious charters, then instead of opening a path to funding for religious schools, blue states are more likely to put a moratorium on the growth of any new charters. Ultimately, that could mean that, in an effort to increase parent choice, we end up reducing it.
We should keep these problems in mind as we think about how to expand parent choice in the years ahead. With momentum on our side, we should seize this moment in time to scale up both private and public school choice programs. To be sure, that fight will always be harder in traditionally blue states that are largely hostile to choice. But as more parents across the country enjoy true educational freedom, it will become more difficult for reluctant states to resist the pull towards educational freedom.