Religion in the Public Sphere- A review of religious charter schools

Author(s): Marcia J. Harr Bailey and Bruce S. Cooper

Source: Bailey, Marcia J. Harr, and Bruce S. Cooper. 2009. “The Introduction of Religious Charter Schools: A Cultural Movement in the Private School Sector.” Journal of Research on Christian Education 18(3): 272-289.


Enrollment in U.S. charter schools has risen steadily since the first 1,500 schools opened in 1992.  Enrollment figures from the 2012-2013 academic year indicate that 2.3 million students were enrolled in just over 6,000 charter schools, representing almost 5% of the nation’s school population (NCES 2015).   A new wave of "ethnocentric niche charter schools" (Fox et al. 2012) – what the authors refer to as religious charter schools – have emerged during this growth period.  Bailey and Cooper describe a number of charter schools founded by minority religious and cultural groups to illustrate how more mainstream traditional religions could utilize this educational format as an alternative to restrictive high-tuition private schools.  

Bailey and Cooper analyze five ethnocentric charter schools, schools founded on the principles of specific ethnic and religious groups, demonstrating that they provide instruction that both is religiously informed and fosters high academic achievement, despite the legal and social difficulties of operating such schools. These schools are not exclusively dedicated to the practice or transmission of religion, allowing them to classify themselves as public schools with access to public funds.  The schools in this analysis cater to religious and cultural groups that are Muslim, Greek Orthodox, Jewish and Hmong.  They use their curricula to maintain ties with traditional languages and other cultural practices, yet they also demonstrate success both in terms of test scores and enrollment figures.

The authors also discuss the legality of this type of institution.  Although many ethnocentric niche charter schools have religious mission statements, according to the authors they focus on "historical perspectives, values, and customs" (p, 276).  They are allowed to partner with religious organizations to provide secular services, and can be located within religious facilities as long as faith is not preached during school hours.  Despite this, schools can require students to learn the history, customs, and language of a religion.  

Bailey and Cooper show that in many aspects this new public school forum could act as an equitable alternative to Christian private schools.  Charter schools that have smaller school sizes and an ability to collaborate with external community organizations provide their students with significant benefits over public schools in terms of safety, education, satisfaction, and achievement (Nathan and Febey 2001).   Religious institutions that create charter schools would also experience the added benefit of having greater access to public funds and being accessible to a larger population of students due to lower tuition rates.  Although there are a number of favorable aspects to operating within this new academic space, the authors acknowledge that drawbacks to a public conversion emerge when surrounding communities and external organizations, such as the ACLU, contest the appearance of religion within the public sphere.

The ethnocentric niche charter schools model is not limited to the minority religious and cultural groups included in this analysis.  According to the authors, it could be particularly fruitful for Catholics and Evangelical Protestants as well.  More specifically, the authors view the rise of ethnocentric niche charter schools as a possible solution to the decline in Catholic parochial schools over the last two decades.  Washington D.C. Archbishop Donald Wuerl recently converted seven failing private schools into charter schools, resulting in greater availability of religious schooling to families who previously could not afford a private education for their children.  Bailey and Cooper contend that an academic revolution could emerge if more private institutions were to follow the Archbishop into the public sector of ethnocentric niche charter schools.

The authors suggest that the increase in the number of ethnocentric niche schools could bring about revolutionary change in the American education system as families shift from private religious schools to publically-funded charter schools with more viable finance streams.  Such a change is unlikely to be revolutionary, however, given that only one in nine American students attend private school, and even fewer are in religious schools.  Even if a majority of religious schools transitioned to the ethnocentric niche model, we would only see a change in 3 to 4% of the American educational landscape.

More problematic, however, is the authors’ assumption that such a large shift in the religious school sector is possible in the first place.  Although Bailey and Cooper suggest that private schools would be willing to sacrifice their ability to provide religious instruction in order to gain access to public funds as an alternative to imminent closure, they fail to address that religious private schools choose to organize as private rather than public schools because of their commitment to teaching religious faith and doctrine.  They do not engage with the fact that most private schools are not willing to sacrifice their ability to teach religion classes because this is what lies at the core of these institutions.  Switching to the public forum would fundamentally alter the purpose of religious education by removing religious faith and practices from the curriculum.  Even if a portion of private school parents might choose charter alternatives, it seems unlikely that religious school administrators would opt for the ethnocentric charter model, even in the extreme case of a school closure.

The authors’ suggestion that the establishment of a significant number of new ethnocentric niche charter schools has the capacity to change the American education landscape is not without merit, however, if we consider the possibility that parents whose children currently attend public schools might consider charter schools that provide culturally or religiously-informed education without the private religious school price tag.  The schools that Bailey and Cooper described were successful in balancing the provision religiously and culturally-informed instruction and maintaining an academic standard at least on par with peer public schools, suggesting that ethnocentric niche charter schools could represent a viable alternative for some parents, but likely will not be as attractive an option for religious school administrators as the authors suggest.

Fox, Robert, Nina Buchanan, Suzanne Eckes, and Letitia Basford. 2012. “The Line Between Cultural Education and Religious Education: Do Ethnocentric Niche Charter Schools Have a Prayer?” Review of Research in Education 36(1): 282-305.

Nathan, Joe and Karen Febey. 2001. Smaller, Safer, Saner, Successful Schools. University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Center for School Change; National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities, Washington D.C.

NCES.  2015.  “Charter School Enrollment” in The Condition of Education.  Available online from:

Keywords: charter schools, religious schools, ethnocentric niche charter schools,

Sector: Catholic,  Charter,  Evangelical Protestant,  Jewish,  Muslim,  Other Protestant,  Private

Outcomes: School Organization

Date Posted: 2015-10-28