WHEN NEW YORK CITY'S TROUBLED public schools reopened this month, thousands of students arrived to find they had no seats. There were stories of classes meeting in locker rooms and counselors working out of closets. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani responded with what seemed like a radical proposal: transfer some of the city's 91,000 surplus students to Roman Catholic schools, which he himself had attended.
No one yet knows whether his plan will ever become reality; many legal and financial obstacles remain. But there's no question that the success of inner-city parochial schools has long intrigued public educators. Five years ago, in fact, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Albert Shanker, dared New York's Catholic schools to open their doors to the least educable 5 percent of the city's students. Shanker contends that Catholic schools do well only because they cater to the better students and motivated parents. An agreement to send 1,000 of the city's lowest achievers to parochial and other schools eventually collapsed. Since then, Milwaukee and Cleveland have experimented with using public funds to pay private and parochial tuition for poor kids.
If Mayor Giuliani has his way this time, New York's Catholic educators may get a second chance to prove what many studies have long concluded: that Catholic schools provide a better education than many public schools do--especially for disadvantaged students. How do Catholic schools do it?
Discipline and values are major reasons many parents--especially minorities and non-Catholics--opt for parochial schools. But according to recent studies, Catholic high schools have several other advantages over their public counterparts. Chief amongg these are an emphasis on a common academic core of work required of all students; an environment that creates a strong social bond among students, faculty and administrators; a moral mission that sees education as a form of social justice and a commitment to small schools where principals and faculty are freer to make decisions.
In the 1993 book ""Catholic Schools and the Common Good,'' researchers destroy a number of myths about Catholic education. ""Urban Catholic schools typically educate a broader cross section of students as measured by race, ethnicity, income level and even religion than urban public high schools,'' says coauthor Anthony S. Bryk, professor of education at the University of Chicago. And although they maintain the option to expel unruly students, the number of expulsions each year is fewer than two per school. Daily religion classes are required of all students at Catholic schools, but non-Catholics are not treated as subjects for conversion. At the Transfiguration Catholic School in New York's Chinatown, for example, 88 percent of the pupils are non-Catholics and 96 percent are Chinese, most from Confucian or Buddhist backgrounds. All attend Catholic liturgies, read the Bible and learn the value of loving God and neighbor. At males-only Rice High School in Harlem, 70 percent of the students are non-Catholics, 80 percent are black and 20 percent Latino. Last year 91 percent went to college and the best religion student was a Muslim.
In short, argues Bryk, it is the urban Catholic, not the public, school that most resembles the ""common school'' envisioned more than a century ago by reformer Horace Mann, when he created the concept of public schools. ""They actively develop a sense of community and personal responsibility,'' Bryk says. ""And because of the care given each student, academic success is less dependent on factors like family organization and parental education.''
Catholic schools aren't perfect. Most are financially pressed and much of the teaching is ordinary, Bryk's study finds. Nor can Catholic schools educate more than a fraction of the nation's students. But they can provide valuable lessons for beleaguered public schools. In principle, at least, the keys to the success of Catholic schools are transferable to public education. In the long run, that's a lot better than transferring students.
Throughout the country, Catholic schools operate with smaller staffs, tighter budgets and larger class sizes than their public-school counterparts.
SCHOOL YEAR 1994-95 CATHOLIC PUBLIC -------------------------- Total schools 8,293 85,393 Total enrollment 2.6 million 44.1 million Average spending per pupil $2,413* $6,084 Teacher's salary, elementary $20,716*** $36,275 Teacher's salary, secondary $26,800*** ** $37,621
* 1993-95. **1993-94. ***LAY TEACHER
SOURCES: NATIONAL CATHOLIC EDUCATION ASSOCIATION, NATIONAL CENTER FOR EDUCATION STATISTICS.