No shortage of things must happen for a group of financially strapped Memphis Catholic schools to be transformed into what would be the city’s largest charter school network.
A new or existing charter organization would need to step up to run the schools, and the applicant would need to navigate a complicated approval process and win over a school district that is asking more of charters and increasingly wary of losing students.
The formerly Catholic schools would need to shed a core piece of their identity — religion — even while they could keep the same teachers.
With state lawmakers again ruling out a private school voucher program that could keep the schools afloat, diocesan officials say they have no choice but to close the schools at the end of next school year and seek a path taken by other U.S. Catholic dioceses suffering plummeting enrollment in their schools.
Jubilee Catholic Schools Network announced last week its plans to close nine schools that serve mostly low-income students and another Catholic school that received substantial funding from the organization.
Catholic school enrollment nationwide has dropped steadily from its peak in the 1960s of 5.2 million to 1.8 million students last school year, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.
In the late 2000s, several schools in Washington, D.C., Indianapolis, and Miami shed their Catholic affiliation and reopened as charter schools. After the move, the schools reported higher student enrollment and diversity, according to an 2014 analysis by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, which advocates for school choice, including vouchers. (The organization, which has since changed its name to EdChoice, is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat. You can see our full list of supporters here.)
Most of the 18 schools examined retained many of the same employees, but replaced religious aspects such as Bible lessons with lessons on the school’s core values, which is more common in charter schools.
“Although the number of private schools undergoing a similar conversion is small, trends suggest that absent mechanisms to lower the cost of private schooling for consumers, this behavior may increase in the future,” the report read.
In Tennessee, converting any school into a charter requires a hefty application process through a local school district.
“There’s no magic button to convert an existing school to a charter school. In fact, state law prohibits this from happening,” said Maya Bugg, CEO of the Tennessee Charter School Center. “If Jubilee schools or any other entity is interested in starting a charter school, they would have to go through the entire process as if they never existed — beginning with a letter of intent and then developing and submitting their application to their local authorizer.”
To receive federal funding as public schools do, there must be a clear break from religious affiliation. The new organization must hold a lottery just like any other charter school, meaning no student previously enrolled in the private school is guaranteed a spot.
“However, the statute does not prohibit a newly created charter school from using resources previously used by a closed private school, including hiring teachers or enrolling students from the closed private school,” according to guidance from the U.S. Department of Education.
To help pass legal muster, parochial schools should adopt a secular curriculum, change their names, and keep a separate accounting system, said Preston Green, a professor at the University of Connecticut who explored the legal questions of churches operating charter schools in a 2001 law review article. He also expects religious schools losing enrollment to take this route as the “holy grail” of school choice — vouchers — becomes less viable.
“Charters are an easier sell if they offer it within the public system,” Green told Chalkbeat. “I think that vouchers can be a tough sell because people become more concerned about the public school system especially when talking about diverting funds. … So if you have these schools operating within the school system, you don’t have that diversion.”
Interaction with religious organizations and charter schools is not new in Memphis. For example, a community development organization in South Memphis created by St. Andrew’s AME Church operates the Circles of Success Learning Academy charter school and is housed inside the church.
Multi-site charter schools operate in Memphis, but none are as large as the Jubilee group of schools. Nor have so many charter schools from one operator opened in Memphis at once.
The district doubled the size of its charter office last year in an attempt to hold the burgeoning sector more accountable. At the same time, the district established more specific ground rules for its 51 charters on sticky issues like accountability, facilities, and funding. Last year, the school board approved just three charter schools out of 14 applicants, down from seven the year before.
The school system is also fighting to retain enrollment in its directly run schools. The conversion could run counter to the wishes of school board members who have long lamented that charters can open anywhere in the city without first considering if a neighborhood already has too many schools in the area.
Last year, the district’s charter office required applicants to identify where they hope to locate. In initial recommendations, district administrators take into consideration the charter’s proximity to district-run schools, though that has yet to be a deciding factor in approving a charter.
Jubilee’s schools are scattered throughout the city, and the Catholic network’s board members hope the charter schools would operate in the same buildings and retain most of the students.
Bugg said Jubilee’s plan is not a shoo-in, especially as her organization and others have increasingly pushed for high standards for charter applications.
“The goal is not to open charters for the sake of charters, which is why the application process is so robust and detailed,” she said. “We ultimately want to see schools and students succeed. The critical eye and consideration that is applied to every application is key to ensuring that high-quality schools open and are positioned for success and sustainability from the beginning.”