Tough Advice for Faith-Based Schools from a Critical Friend

On Tuesday, November 19, I gave the keynote speech at the American Center for School Choice event tied to the release of the report of its Commission on Faith-based Schools. The following is the text (edited for length) as it was prepared.

Thank you so much for having me here today. I truly am honored to have the chance to talk to such a distinguished group of leaders about a subject that I care about so deeply.

OK, OK, I know that’s how all speakers begin. But I actually do mean it this time. Certainly not when I say it other times—but definitely this time!

During my career I’ve bounced between government service and the nonprofit world, where I spend the bulk of my time researching and writing. And whether I’m wearing my bureaucrat hat or my think-tank hat, I make sure to devote some of my energy to trying to preserve inner-city faith-based schools serving low-income kids.

Be forewarned: This next section is going to come across as gallingly self-serving. I promise it’s only half gallingly self-serving; there’s another purpose for the rest of it.

I met some of you during my time at the White House when I organized the White House Summit on Inner-city Children and Faith-based Schools. As you might remember, we were even able to get the President himself to speak there.

Incidentally, the young woman who introduced the President—in that picture—graduated from Archbishop Carroll and is now a student at the University of Tennessee. She and I actually chatted yesterday, and I’m trying to convince her to intern for me this summer.

Also, as you also might remember, we were somehow able to have a paragraph about these schools inserted into the 2008 State of the Union. And as I was leaving the White House and shifting to the U.S. Department of Education, I authored and then helped to disseminate the report Preserving a Critical National Asset: America’s Disadvantaged Students and the Crisis in Faith-based Urban Schools.

During my nonprofit writing phases, I’ve written about the history of Catholic schools and how we might save them and a case study examining the charter conversion of seven Catholic schools in the District of Columbia. And in my book, I make an argument for better integrating private schools into our policies and practices related to primary and secondary schooling.

Now, I know this must sound like I’m interviewing for a job, trying to impress you all with this stuff. But I give you this history for a totally different reason. I want you to know that this issue is near and dear to my heart and that I’m a loyal friend of the cause…because I’m here today as a critical friend.

I suspect I’m about to say some things that many of you will disagree with; I may even frustrate some of you. But please know that it’s in the spirit of collaboration and, hopefully, continuous improvement.

My fundamental message to all of you is this: There is no doubt that a long list of factors are conspiring to wear away at this invaluable sector of schools—demographic shifts, changes in family behavior, unfair political charges, unhelpful public policies, and many more.

But at the end of that list—if we’re to be honest—should be a mirror.

What we have done and what we are doing have contributed to our plight. It is time for us to take responsibility for this and to change.

Now let me be crystal clear about something. My view is that one of the great virtues of the world’s major religious traditions is stability—that core principals don’t shift like mountains of sand when temporal winds change.

So I’m not asking anyone to alter their beliefs or amend what’s taught in their schools. I’m a Catholic, so maybe I shouldn’t be using this adage from the Reformation (forgive me, Father!) but what I’m saying is that we need to “preserve the faith while reforming the church,” maintain our principles but alter how they are delivered. In this context, that means jealously guarding our schools and what they stand for while recognizing how we go about this must change.

You see, our schools in 2013 exist in a very different context, a very different environment, than they did in 1943, 1963, or 1983. I’m not sure our behaviors reflect that reality.

Actually, I know they don’t.

Without putting too fine of a point on it, an H.G. Wells quote seems particularly fitting: “Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.”

So what do I mean that the context has changed? Let me give a couple examples. Catholic schools used to have a nearly captive consumer base and inexpensive labor costs, in relative terms. Because of concerns about what was being taught in public schools and rampant anti-Catholic bigotry, the Catholic Bishops at the 1884 Plenary Council of Baltimore decreed that every Catholic parish ought to have a school and that every Catholic family ought to send their children to such schools.

But as anti-Catholic antagonism decreased over time, families could move to find public schools that suited them, and as fewer men and women joined the ranks of priests and nuns, the entire equation changed: less demand for Catholic schools and more expenses associated with lay educators.

The charter school movement is another example. Beginning in the early 1990s, chartered public schools appeared in America’s cities and then grew rapidly. They were tuition-free, and like great faith-based schools, they often focused on important non-cognitive skills like discipline and grit and taught a similar moral code of conduct—though a secularized version. And many got outstanding results: Today there are hundreds of thousands of inner-city children in high-performing, high-poverty charter schools.

One last example: Because of the standards and accountability movement that began in the 1980s and extended through today, public schools publicly report a wide array of data related to test scores, poverty rates, teacher characteristics, and much, much more. In today’s American cities, with expanding charter schools and districts creating new and diversified options under their aegis, the schools market is highly competitive.

As a result, families are becoming smarter and pickier customers, using considerable amounts of publicly available data to decide which schools are the best fits for their kids. Moreover, the district and charter sectors are performance-managing in increasingly sophisticated ways. They find the best schools and grow them—adding grades or new campuses. They start new schools that will meet current community demands. They close schools that are persistently underperforming.

Now if you’re familiar with the Sherlock Holmes story “Silver Blaze,” you know the saying, “the dog that didn’t bark.” In this tale, there was an unsolved robbery, but a guard dog never uttered a yelp. The dog’s lack of reaction was key—he knew the thief.

As I reflect on the massive changes in the context on K–12 education in recent decades, I’m struck by the same thing as Holmes. Why has the faith-based schools community barely reacted—or, back to H.G. Wells, why have we not adapted to this new environment?

We are shuttering schools in heartbreaking numbers, we are hemorrhaging students, and yet in so many ways we’re acting like it’s still 1963:

Dioceses’ central offices are arranged in the exact same ways. Central offices are led by the exact same types of people.

Faith-based schools trade off good reputations that were built decades ago and that, in many cases, are no longer applicable. In studies of the D.C. and Milwaukee scholarship programs and in my book, there’s clear evidence of huge variation in private school performance.

In a moment’s notice I can get on the Internet and find just about any information I want on any public school in America—data is transparent. But it is virtually impossible to do the same with private schools. When I was writing my book, I asked scores of dioceses and other collections of private schools to give me test score and poverty data on their schools. And they all said no; the only two that eventually said yes did so only because I promised to never reveal the names of any of their schools or even which dioceses they were! That’s why my book refers to them as Large Urban Diocese I and II.

When charter schools close, it’s via a transparent public process: A school was chronically underperforming, not living up to the conditions of its performance contract, and it has its charter revoked. Similarly, when urban districts need to close a set of schools in order to consolidate, they increasingly ensure that school quality is the first consideration—preserve high performers and close low performers.

But when sets of private schools close, generally the rationale used is totally opaque. Worse, decisions are based on geographic or enrollment considerations, not performance. This means that parents have no reason to believe that the remaining schools were the ones getting the best results.

I could go on and on, but I hope my thrust is clear. Nothing this sector is doing—from leadership to strategy to tactics—suggests that we realize we are operating in a new era. It’s as though we believe perishing is preferable to adapting.

I refuse to accept that.

I have familiarized myself with the principles of the American Center for School Choice, and I made sure to read the report you’re releasing, which is very good. But one thing stood out to me above everything else: It’s the firm view that there is a moral obligation to change things—to empower all families to access the private schools they want.

But two critical elements seem to be missing from your calculus. The first is that while the invocation of moral imperatives resonates with, as the saying goes, those “already in the choir,” in order for these imperatives to be brought to public life, engagement in the political process is essential.

Let me reason by analogy. There is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that it was a centuries-long moral imperative to bring about racial equality in this country. But it still took the massive political wrangling of the 38th Congress to pass the 13th Amendment and bruising ratification fights in the states to bring to an end the abomination of slavery. Then it took another hundred years of battling segregation through legislatures and the courts to allow kids with different color skin to attend the same schools and have their parents sit at the same lunch counters.

Merely invoking a “moral imperative” don’t get the hay cut. You have to fight relentlessly to realize it.

In other words, the school-choice obligation we derive from our own consciences and infer from the famous Pierce decision will only be met through smart, unremitting political activity.

I’m sorry to say we cannot scold and lecture our way to victory.

The second point is related to this: The report seems to suggest that this imperative requires big changes in behavior from just about everyone except those in the mirror. We want families to choose our schools. We want the general public to change its views on faith-based education. We want policymakers to change laws and regulations.

The following paragraph from your report is particularly instructive:

“America is losing a valuable national asset—not because it has become obsolescent, not because the demand for it has disappeared, not because the need for it has been satisfied by other entities, but because we have a misguided public policy…

It is my humble contention that these policies are misguided as much because of our behavior as anyone else’s. I’m sad to say, most believe we currently don’t deserve better policies. Our elected officials are understandably making education decisions based on the conditions of 2013, and we’re acting like it’s 1963.

We need to make ourselves deserving of public funding in the eyes of the public.

The good news, however, is that never before have conditions been more auspicious for us to act. In the words of the famous political scientist John Kingdon, a “policy window” has opened. There is an opportunity to adjust political and policy arrangements so more parents—especially working class and low-income families—can access our schools.

But now the onus is on us. Are we willing to make some changes and do what’s necessary to take advantage of this opportunity? Or are we going to rely on the old arguments, the old habits, and the old strategies that have brought us here today?

Here’s the opportunity. For decades, discussion of education reform always began with a question along the lines of, “How do we improve the urban district?” This is, of course, limiting in countless ways, and it has led to 50 years of spending and work that have, tragically, had miniscule positive impact on student learning. To this day we have not a single high-performing urban district. Not one.

Accordingly, some of us have tried to change the debate—actually just change the opening question to something like, “How do we continuously grow the number of students in high-performing schools?”

Former New York City chancellor Joel Klein helped advance this thinking by continuously saying that he wasn’t trying to make a great school system, he was trying to create a great system of schools. This was more than some clever semantic sleight of hand or tongue. He was saying the school should be the unit of analysis, not the district’s central office.

With the proliferation of charter schools, things became even more interesting. We no longer just had to focus on district schools; we could focus on all public schools—charter and district. Moreover, given that chartering enables the continuous creation of new schools, the replication of great schools, and the closure of failing schools, we weren’t tied in perpetuity to the schools of today: We could think about an ever-changing, ever-improving set of schools.

In recent years, this shift has pushed two related terms of art to the fore. The first is “sector agnosticism.” It means its subscribers don’t care if a school comes from the district sector or the charter sector—what they care about is if the school is doing right by kids. They are agnostic about the school operator.

The other term is “portfolio.” Instead of a portfolio of files or stocks, think of a city’s portfolio of schools—meaning the entirety of schools within the city’s borders.

My argument to all of you is that you should fight to expand “sector agnosticism” to all three sectors—district, charter, and private. In fact, when Congress passed a private school voucher program for Washington, D.C., alongside new funding for the district and charter sectors, the overall reform plan was called the “three-sector approach.”

Similarly, you should constantly push your leaders to consider private schools as part of the city’s portfolio of schools. You are just a different sector within the field of primary and secondary education.

OK, so how do you bring this to life? It’s rather simple, actually. Your report accurately points out that most Western nations provide funding to their private schools. But what is conspicuously absent from that discussion is the quid pro quo.

Private school’s participation in these nations’ public school systems is contingent on certain things. For example, they have to adhere to the same content standards, use a common curriculum, administer the same assessments, or other things along those lines. The private schools retain a great deal of operational autonomy, but the price of public support is some form of public accountability.

So in closing, here’s my recommendation for The Grand Bargain. In exchange for a scholarship or tax-credit program, we agree to a charter-like accountability system.

Under the new public program, any private school that wants to participate—meaning, receive public dollars—submits an application to an authorizer. That body determines if each applying school has the promise to provide a high-quality education to its students and run a tight financial and operational ship.

If a school’s application is approved, it develops a performance contract with the authorizer. That body doesn’t micromanage the school; instead, it monitors academic performance, governance, and the use of public funds. The contract lasts five years and is renewable, so long as the school meets the unique provisions of its performance agreement.

Importantly, the school need not give up its faith-based elements, as long as the school adheres to basic democratic, pluralistic principles. If the school fails to live up to its end of the bargain—bad academic performance, inappropriate use of funds—there is are consequences. The authorizer can remove it from the public system—meaning no more public funds; per Pierce, the school has the right to stay open, but it must, as it had before, rely on its own streams of funding.

I wish it were the case that we could simply say to state legislatures, “Faith-based private schools are great. Pass a scholarship law, and be done with it.” But in most states, that hasn’t worked. I suspect if we continue to use that tack, we’ll be back here in another few years mourning more lost schools and searching for a solution.

But the emerging education environment gives you this great new opportunity. Increasingly, the public and policymakers appreciate the value of school choice. They know these faith-based schools are important. The concepts of sector-agnosticism and school portfolios are catching on. And the trade of school autonomy for school accountability is now accepted as a hear article of faith.

I don’t know how much longer this policy window will be open. So let’s turn H.G. Wells on his head.

Carpe diem, accommodare, et pervigeo.

Seize the day, adapt, and thrive.

-Andy Smarick

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog,

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