Chicago Catholic school proposes reopening as a charter school

Tuesday, January 26, 1999

Talk of converting a private Catholic school in Chicago to a publicly supported charter school has prompted condemnation from some in the community as well as a national civil rights group.

Administrators for St. Sabina School have discussed with Chicago Public School officials a plan to close the private parochial school, then reopen it as a charter school funded partly by the government. Illinois has a charter-school law that permits creation of schools that, although publicly funded, operate much more like private schools. Paul Vallas, superintendent of Chicago public schools, told the Chicago Tribune last month that he endorsed the change of St. Sabina and that it could happen next fall.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C., sent a letter to Vallas last week claiming Illinois charter-school law did not allow religious schools to convert to charter schools.

“The conversion would amount to subterfuge of the statutory prohibition on the conversion of existing parochial schools into charter schools,” the group stated in its letter. “Certainly, the legislature did not contemplate that such 'conversions' would take place overnight, as they must have understood that any such transition would require a school to undertake certain preparations.”

The group also maintains that if the change takes place, St. Sabina will have to comply with government regulations placed on public schools. “St. Sabina's will not be able to conform its curricula to Catholic teachings — it could not forgo teaching evolution in science class, it could not censor information about contraception and abortion in sex education classes, it could not fail to mention euthanasia in classes in which it is relevant, and it could not be allowed to alter its teaching about current events to respect Catholic doctrine,” the group argued.

Rob Boston, assistant communications director for Americans United, said that if St. Sabina's becomes a charter school, the group may challenge the conversion in court.

“We are watching this situation closely,” Boston said. “In other states, similar discussions are taking place. New York just passed a charter-school law and several religious leaders have announced an interest in converting their private schools to charter schools.”

Shortly after the New York Legislature passed its charter-school law late last year, officials in African-American and Hispanic churches said they would seek to convert their private schools into publicly financed charter schools. Some sponsors of the charter law told The New York Times that the law was not intended to permit such actions.

Vallas said that secular private institutions are permitted to open charter schools and that religious groups should not be treated differently. “We've got every other private organization running charter schools – why not the archdiocese?” Vallas asked the Tribune. “Their experience and track record in running private schools is as good as any other group.”

Last week President Clinton hailed the expansion of charter schools in his State of the Union speech.

“Parents should be given more choices in selecting their public schools,” Clinton said. “When I became president, there was just one independent public charter school in all America. With our support, on a bipartisan basis, today there are 1,100. My budget assures that early in the next century, there will be 3,000.”