Who can doubt that the fortunes of charter schools are on the rise? Philanthropists both liberal and conservative have been showering money on charters, viewing them as a promising alternative to traditional public schools because of their relative freedom from union contracts and education bureaucracies. The number of charter schools across the country has soared. Charters have even inspired movies, including the 2010 documentary Waiting for “Superman,” which tells the story of several successful charter school networks in Harlem—where black and Hispanic parents, desperate to avoid the awful public schools, enter their children in lotteries to try to secure seats in the charters.
What’s missing from this narrative, however, is an alarming fact: for every charter school recently opened in Harlem, two Catholic schools have had to close because of financial trouble. The same holds for New York City as a whole. Since inner-city Catholic schools have historically provided lifesaving educational choices for minorities and the poor, the result has been a net loss of good schools for Gotham.
To appreciate what’s at stake, consider St. Aloysius School, a pre-K through eighth-grade Catholic school struggling to survive in its redbrick building in central Harlem. Named for the sixteenth-century Jesuit educator Aloysius Gonzaga, the school opened over 70 years ago as a haven for poor and working-class Catholic immigrant families. But as Harlem turned overwhelmingly non-Catholic, St. Aloysius kept its doors open, building a solid record of elevating the academic achievement of poor black children while spending less money than either public or charter schools.