Nicole Stelle Garnett joins Brian Anderson to discuss the importance of Catholic schools, their struggle to compete with charter schools, and what the Supreme Court’s recent Espinoza decision will mean for private-school choice—the subjects of her story, “Why We Still Need Catholic Schools,” in City Journal’s new summer issue.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on today's show is a new contributor to the magazine, Nicole Stelle Garnett. Professor Garnett is the John P. Murphy Foundation professor of law at the University of Notre Dame. And she's the author of two books, Ordering the City: Land Use Policing and the Restoration of Urban America, which came out from Yale University Press in 2009, and more recently Lost Classroom, Lost Community: Catholic School's Importance in Urban America, which was published by the University of Chicago. She's written a terrific essay for the summer of 2020 issue of the magazine, which is back from the printer any day now. It's called “Why We Still Need Catholic Schools.” Professor Garnett, thanks very much for joining us.

Nicole Garnett: Thanks so much for having me, Brian.

Brian Anderson: You open your piece with a story about a well known Catholic school network in Memphis, Tennessee called the Memphis Jubilees schools. And it had a really impressive record of serving lower income kids in that particular city. In 2018, though, church leadership announced it would be closing this network of schools, primarily because of financial reasons, and reopen the following year as secular charter schools. This decision you note in your essay is part of kind of a growing trend, a nationwide trend, in education. Could you elaborate a bit on what's going on with Catholic schools and charters?

Nicole Garnett: Right. So I think there are a variety of different trends that are intersecting in the story of the Memphis Jubilee schools. The first is just a dramatic constriction in the Catholic sector of the last, it's been declining since the seventies, but over the last 10, 15 years even more steeply, Catholic school closures. Every year there are stories of several hundred more closing. And these closures generally have been concentrated in urban neighborhoods where the schools sort of heroically hung on and served the poor children, urban children, disadvantaged children, minority kids. So that's one sort of story, that there's just been a lot of Catholic school closures. And those closures have, not exclusively by any means, but been primarily focused or located in urban areas, and the kids that are affected disadvantaged.

The second part of the story is the rise of charter schools. Charter schools have eclipsed private school choice and other kinds of school as the school choice mechanism that is most preferred politically, at least until recently. And so as charter schools have sort of come into, become part of the urban infrastructure. They compete with Catholic schools and some kids, understandably because charter schools are free and Catholic schools aren't, will switch from Catholic schools to charter schools, and that's led to enrollment declines.

The final part of the Memphis story, which is sad in some ways but understandable in others, is that the fact that Catholic schools in many states' faith-based schools can't get public funds unless they secularize, which is that the Bishop in Memphis made the decision that in order to get public funds to keep the schools open, he had to close them and turn them into secular charter schools. So the schools, I think they're called compass community schools now, are at least theoretically supposed have some of the same values and other things as the previous Catholic schools that occupied the walls. But they can't be religious schools. They can't teach the faith. They can't teach the Catholic faith as the truth.

So I think all of those things are going on in the Memphis story. It's even hard for folks like me, who've long been advocating for Catholic schools. It was a particularly sad moment because the previous Bishop in Memphis had chosen to reopen Catholic schools in Memphis as city center. Bishop Stein, who's African American, really believed that his church had abandoned the children of Memphis and he resolved to reopen these schools to serve them. And then when the Jubilee schools closed, every single school in Memphis city center, the Catholic school closed. There's no longer a Catholic option for children in the city center.

Brian Anderson: And this has going on in multiple cities. It's not just in Memphis, as you know.

Nicole Garnett: Right.

Brian Anderson: Now, the argument of your piece is that this is to be regretted profoundly. And there is a sentence that sums up your view. "Catholic schools provide a powerful educational alternative for disadvantaged kids that charters can't readily match." Now, that isn't a widespread view. What do you mean by that? And what is it that the Catholic schools provide to these communities that even the best charters might not be able to replicate?

Nicole Garnett: Well, first of all, I would say I start by saying I'm actually a big supporter of charter schools and my piece was not at all intended to criticize them. I think they're good. They're very welcome option for many, many families. Catholic schools have, or Catholic schools, faith-based schools, Catholic schools have long really done an incredible job of serving the poor, and they've done it on their own dime, on their own dime without any public assistance.

So what do I mean by saying that Catholic schools are unique, perhaps add something that charter schools don't? I think it could be that there's a line that I borrow, or I play off of in the piece, the Heartland Success Academy. Eva Moskowitz, she started the Heartland Success Academy charter schools, which is one of the most successful networks. She says, "Well, we're Catholic on the outside." And what she means is we have discipline, kids wear uniforms, we emphasize good habits and character.

And I say in the piece, it might actually matter that Catholic schools are Catholic on the inside. What maybe matters in the lives of, not every child, but for some children, is that the school is itself, is a place that is formed and animated by the idea that children are formed in the image and likeness of a loving God. And that every human being, every adult and child in the building, has a duty to reach their God given potential.

Now, one of the ways that might play out is the way that teachers approach teaching. Maybe they feel a call of a certain kind. Maybe they teach kids about virtues, not just habits. And maybe these things we see, Catholic schools, if you look at the data on Catholic schools, one of the things that's striking is that the long term effects of going to a Catholic school really overshadow any benefits that might be reflected in test scores. So kids earn more money over their lifetime. They're more likely not only to go to college, but to persist in college than some charter school kids.

So there's a secret sauce, perhaps, of Catholic schools. And maybe we can't put our finger on one thing about it, but maybe it really is the fact that they are religious schools or Catholic on the inside. And that changes what happens inside. Maybe they've approach, not just the way they approach their children isn't just to educate them, but to form them as whole people, to emphasize the importance of giving to one another, emphasize the importance of giving back to their communities, all of these things.

Now, charter schools can do a lot of those things. And many charter schools do do a lot of those things, but they can't have the same animating principle, which is that we're here because we're called to be here by something that is greater than ourselves.

Brian Anderson: There's another benefit you mentioned in the essay to urban Catholic schools, according to the research, which is that they often serve as community anchors. Could you elaborate a little bit on that, how they [crosstalk 00:08:48] effects on the community?

Nicole Garnett: So, yes. So in 2014, I published a book with colleague, [inaudible 00:08:56] Brinig, who's an economist as well as a lawyer. We had this kind of crazy idea that we might be able to measure the effects of having a Catholic school in a community. There's a lot of research on Catholic schools on the inside, what makes them special. And one of the things that this Catholic school effect literature suggests is that one of the things that makes Catholic schools so successful is that they're really good at building social capital. They have very high levels of trust between teachers and principals and students and parents.

But so our thought was whether or not that social capital building effects might spill over into the community. So what we did is looked at Catholic school closures in Chicago and in Philadelphia and at the police beat level. And we did some fancy statistical stuff. And then we said, "What happens when a Catholic school closes? What happens to that neighborhood?" And we found that in Chicago and Philadelphia, the neighborhoods became more dangerous, measured by major crimes. They became less socially cohesive and they became more disorderly. And charter schools didn't... And we also found that if a police beat had an open Catholic school that the crime and that police beat was about 30% lower.

Charter schools didn't have the same effects. We didn't try to make any causal claims about charter schools though because our data, they were relatively new institutions, and for lots of reasons we just didn't feel comfortable doing that. But we do feel pretty confident that Catholic schools, when a Catholic school closes, a neighborhood declines and it has pretty significant social effects that tells us, or we believe that it tells us, that these are really important anchoring institutions.

Brian Anderson: There's been a lot of discussion is here about faith-based schools on the national stage, thanks to a Supreme Court case that was decided about six or five weeks ago, Espinoza v. Montana. You open your essay for city journal with a discussion of this case. Why is it so important and what are the implications for urban Catholic schools?

Nicole Garnett: Right. So Espinoza versus Montana was a free exercise challenge. The first amendment free exercise, freedom of religion challenge to a decision, the state of Montana to basically shut down a school choice program, a private school choice program, because it included religious schools. And what Montana had decided was that the Montana constitution prohibited any public funds flowing indirectly or directly to any religious school. This case is somewhat ironic because the program involved $150 tax credit, so it really wasn't a lot of money.

So what Supreme Court said was that was religious discrimination, and that violated the free exercise clause. What Espinoza stands for the proposition that if the government, federal or state, sets up a program of private choice and provides funds to private schools, it may not exclude religious schools. This is a really big decision for lots of reasons. One is that 37 states have some version of a state constitutional provision, like the one at issue in the Montana case, they're typically called Blaine Amendments that, that prohibit or purport to limit the ability of the state to give any money to religious schools. And these, after the Supreme Court made clear that school choice was constitutional at the federal level, these have become a major legal impediment to the expansion of school choice. So Espinoza sort of takes them off the table.

I think at a deeper and more theoretical level though, the Supreme Court is saying something that the Catholic church has been saying since at least the 1850s, which is that it's unjust to discriminate against institutions because of their faith in their provision of education. This is Catholic schools, joined by other faiths, had been arguing for parental choice and against sort of the exclusion of religious institutions for a very, very long time. So it vindicates that argument.

And what does it mean going forward? I think it means that in the short term, at least, states can't exclude private schools from private school choice programs. That is limited. I think it has limited impact. Maine and Vermont both have discriminatory programs that are currently being challenged. In the longer term, it does actually open up a question about whether or not charter schools can be religious authentically all the way in, and whether or not laws that prohibit religious charter schools are unconstitutional. I think those questions will be litigated in years to come.

Brian Anderson: Fascinating. One of the points you make in this essay for City Journal is that a sort of flying beneath the radar, school choice has in fact been expanding pretty dramatically in recent years across the country. That there's a whole variety of programs, tax credit programs like the ones you just mentioned, vouchers, education savings account. Could you expand on that a little bit for our listeners?

Nicole Garnett: Sure. So the first voucher program, first modern school choice program, was enacted in 1990 in Wisconsin and it sent 500 kids to private schools in Milwaukee. The Milwaukee program's now expanded to include about 25,000 kids, I believe. Maybe a little less than that. But since then, about of all states have enacted some version of private school choice, that is some program that enables some children to use public funds, to attend a private or faith-based school.

And so there are sort of three buckets of programs, types of programs. One is the tax credit program, like the one that was at issue in Montana, which essentially incentivizes donations to private scholarship funds, to organizations that give scholarships to kids to go to private faith-based schools. The second bucket is vouchers. About half of programs are voucher programs. Vouchers are publicly-funded scholarship programs. One of the largest is in my home state of Indiana. So my kids go to Catholic school. About a third of the children at St. Joe Grade School, where my kids go, have some public assistance from the voucher program in Indiana.

And then there's a new kind of a program called Education Savings Accounts. So Education Savings Accounts are essentially exactly what they sound like. Eligible children are given some money that would otherwise be spent on their education and the parent can decide how to spend it. It might be for extra tutoring for a public school child. It might be for homeschooling. It might be for sending their child to a private school. And so there are about six states now that have Education Savings Accounts.

So school choice has expanded dramatically in terms of the numbers of programs. They're more than 50 programs in the United States and more than half of the states and the district of Columbia have one. I think it's still important to keep in mind that it's a very, very, very small part of the landscape of education. About 500,000 kids use one of these programs, which is just a tiny, tiny percentage of kids. 90% of American school children attend public schools about 10% attend private schools. And of that 10%, perhaps about 1% of those kids get some money. So it's not a lot of money and it's not a lot of kids, but certainly the footprint of parental choice has been expanding.

Brian Anderson: And your view is that it should expand further and that this might be one way to provide a lifeline to these urban Catholic schools. Right?

Nicole Garnett: Right. So when we wrote our book about Catholic schools a few years ago, people would always say, "Oh, this is an argument for school choice." And I always would respond the only argument for school choice is it's good education policy. So I do think that parental choice, the evidence of the benefits of attending a faith-based or a Catholic school, and a Catholic school, are sort of uncontroverted. So you benefit. They form good citizens. They form people that are more successful in their lives. Kids who attend Catholic schools, particularly minority children, disadvantaged kids, outperform their public school counterparts. So I think these schools are really important. And if we don't have more parental choice, they will continue to decline. And there's really no reason to not do it, except politics.

We are unique in the United States, in the Western world, really in the world broadly. So I've actually been doing some comparative research in Latin America and Africa in not funding, private education for kids. And with 3 billion kids, 6% of kids are now in charter schools that are also privately operated, it just seems like that the arguments against private school choice are sort of lost in history and the urgency, the situation, honestly, especially post-COVID, really the urgency has never been more. We really have to do something if we want to maintain these schools as an option for disadvantaged kids.

Brian Anderson: Thanks very much, Professor Garnett. Don't forget to check out Nicole Garnett's essay. It's called “Why We Still Need Catholic Schools.” You can find it on our website,, and we'll link to it in the description. Make sure you follow City Journal on Twitter @CityJournal and Instagram @cityjournal_mi. And as always, if you like what you've heard on the podcast, please give us a rating on iTunes. And thanks very much for listening, as always. And thanks again, Professor Garnett, for joining us.

Nicole Garnett: Thanks for having me.

Photo by Lincoln Beddoe/iStock

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