Charter Challenge: Catholic School Conversions Worry Legal Experts

For the first time, an archdiocese will retain control and continue to run the public school.

Two Catholic elementary schools in Indianapolis will convert to public charter schools and receive nearly $1 million in state funding, according to a plan that was recently authorized by city officials.

St. Anthony’s and St. Andrew and St. Rita Academy will be among the many Catholic-to-charter school conversions approved throughout the country within the past couple of years. In an effort to save failing Catholic schools, officials in Florida, New York, Texas and the District of Columbia have also approved similar conversions.

Just like schools in all the other states, the Indianapolis schools have agreed to stop religious instruction and remove religious symbols in order to receive the public funding. But for the first time, an archdiocese will retain control and continue to run the public school – a move that makes church-state separationists more than a little nervous, to say the least.

As most Americans know, charter schools are public schools that are not required to abide by the same accountability standards as traditional public schools. They run with taxpayer funds, however, and for that reason, Americans United has always made it clear that these schools must abide by the Constitution.

In recent years, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have pushed for creating more charter schools, which are supposed to provide educational alternatives to the public schools because they use specialized, creative teaching methods.

The problem is, often times, school officials may be tempted to use charter schools as a way to push religious doctrine.

Americans United does not want to see this happen in Indianapolis. Our attorneys sent a letter in December to the director of Indianapolis Charter Schools, outlining the legal parameters of the conversion, and noted that it is particularly concerning that the archdiocese will retain direct control over the new charter schools. The archdiocese has formed a nonprofit group called ADI Charter Schools Inc., which will be in charge of school operations.

“This arrangement,” the letter asserted, “will magnify the difficulties that normally accompany a transition of this kind.

“We recognize,” AU continued, “that the Archdiocese of Indianapolis has a proud tradition of providing outstanding education to Indianapolis’s children. But in order to comply with the constitutional requirements, the Archdiocese must operate the schools in a purely secular manner.”

Another of AU’s concerns was that many of the current teachers will return after the transition. Unless they receive specialized training, they might include religious instruction in their teaching.

School and city officials say they have all of this figured out.

“We’re going to be paying particular attention to this school, given the nature of it, to ensure that no religious activities occur, but we have high levels of accountability in the process that the mayor has created that we will implement,” said Christine Marson, assistant director of the mayor’s charter school office.

And Connie Zittnan, director or the Mother Theodore Catholic Academies, which currently runs the city’s six urban Catholic schools, said that staff will be trained in curriculum changes to not incorporate religious instruction.

We hope this true. Americans United will be watching carefully to ensure the archdiocese does not skirt these important constitutional requirements.