With no ability to get public funding through a school voucher program that Tennessee lawmakers have refused to create, the Catholic Diocese of Memphis is turning to another possible avenue: converting a network of schools to charters.
Diocese leaders announced plans this week to close its Jubilee Catholic Schools Network, as well as St. Michael Catholic School, at the end of the 2018-19 school year. The diocese only has enough funding to take the schools through next school year, according to an announcement posted online.
The announcement also said that talks are underway for an existing or new charter network to seek authorization from Shelby County Schools to open new schools in the same locations.
But whether that avenue is open depends on the local district. While diocese leaders said a charter network plans to file a letter of intent by Feb. 1, leaders with Shelby County Schools said Wednesday that the first time they heard from anyone representing Jubilee was soon after the diocese announcement.
Diocese spokesman Vince Higgins told Chalkbeat that board members for the Jubilee network have been leading discussions to gather community interest in creating a new charter network or having an existing one step in.
If that happens, the conversion would be a massive transition involving up to 10 schools that serve more than 1,500 students in pre-K through the 12th grade. Since the charter network would become a public school, the religious education would be eliminated, but many of the staff and students are not Catholic.
Jubilee schools were founded in 1999 to serve students from low-income families. Almost all of the students receive needs-based scholarships, leaving some families to pay as little as $40 per month.
Tapping a voucher program to give families public dollars to pay for private tuition represented a last resort to fill a funding gap left by a shrinking trust fund and declining enrollment. In 2014, the network stood to gain more than $2 million from vouchers if they filled their classroom space. The Jubilee network has about 500 empty seats this year, or one-fourth of its capacity.
But state lawmakers have been reticent to approve a voucher plan. This year, the bill’s main sponsors announced that their proposal was dead before the legislative session even began, sealing the fate of the private Catholic network.
“It’s one of those instances where we saw this was coming, but there was no savior. No one threw a life ring,” Higgins said.
Jubilee was virtually alone among Memphis private schools willing to accept vouchers and administer state tests if the legislature created a program. Many other schools were undecided, some citing the strings attached to receiving taxpayer funds.
Here’s a map of schools affected: