How to Save Catholic Schools: Facing a crisis with confidence
One cold, wet January day I visited one of the inner-city Catholic schools of the Archdiocese of Washington. As I met with the students gathered in that all-purpose room that seems to be a part of every parochial elementary school, serving as the gym, lunchroom and even makeshift chapel, I asked, “Why did we come to school today? What brings us to school on a day like this?” Hands shot up. With great pride, a fourth grader who was directly in front of me replied, “I come to this school so that I can get an education and get a life!” In a nutshell, he gave the reason why we work so hard to sustain our Catholic schools, especially in the inner city. The schools offer their students a future.
An Endangered Species
The effectiveness of Catholic schools in the United States is well known. As many public schools face challenges, Catholic schools are seen as beacons of hope, especially for lower-income children in urban areas. In fact, the National Catholic Educational Association reports that 97 percent of Catholic high school graduates go on to college. Catholic schools work; they succeed in educating children.
But in many areas these schools are becoming an endangered species. At a White House Summit on Inner-City Children and Faith-Based Schools in April, President George W. Bush noted that nationwide, inner-city faith-based schools are “facing a crisis.” Nearly 1,200 of these schools closed between 2000 and 2008, displacing over 400,000 students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Why has this happened? One cause is obvious: demographic changes. The population has moved from older northeastern cities to the southwest, from city to suburbs or beyond. The District of Columbia, for example, has lost approximately 30 percent of its population since 1950, including 10 percent between 2000 and 2005. That means fewer children to attend city schools.
Another major issue is finances, particularly in urban centers and poor rural communities. Many families cannot financially support the schools. Neither can the local parish, which has been the traditional model for Catholic elementary schools, especially as costs increase of instructional materials, new technology and maintenance on aging buildings.
Today, most Catholic schools are no longer staffed by members of religious orders. A study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute points out that in 1967, 58 percent of the teachers in urban Catholic schools were nuns, priests or brothers. Today they comprise barely 4 percent. Lay teachers make up 96 percent of all Catholic school teachers.
In light of these challenges and the realization that we need to take clear and decisive action to ensure the viability of our Catholic schools, I called for an archdiocesan-wide convocation on Catholic education last year, and invited pastors, principals and members of parish councils, finance councils and other advisory groups to discuss together the future of our Catholic schools. This conversation was important because Catholic education—the passing on of the faith—is the responsibility of all Catholics, not just parents or the parish with an on-site school. Out of that convocation came a commitment to develop a comprehensive strategy to strengthen our schools, focusing on four key areas: academic excellence, Catholic identity, affordability and geographic accessibility (so that as many Catholic students as possible are within a reasonable distance of a Catholic school).
Setting Financial Goals
Affordability is critical. In our inner-city schools, many students live with the realities of urban poverty. And in rural St. Mary’s County, Md., a Chesapeake Bay waterman may earn as little as $17,000 per year. We have worked very hard to use resources wisely and to keep our schools affordable. For some families, it is still too much. Yet tuition covers only 70 percent of the cost of education on average.
Traditionally, Catholic schools have been financed by tuition payments, parish and archdiocesan subsidies and local fundraisers. Some high schools also receive subsidies from their sponsoring religious community. These continue to be important sources of support for our schools, but we need to think differently if we are to meet the financial challenge of providing Catholic education into the future. This includes seeking new sources of funding to provide better service to families with significant financial need. Over the past few years, tuition aid endowments have been established in Washington through a capital campaign. We have sought new donors—Catholic and non-Catholic. We also are rethinking how funds are used.
Historically, an education fund financed through an assessment on all parishes has been used for late-year operating subsidies to a small number of needy schools. While helping cover the financial gap of an under-enrolled school, the practice did nothing to fill a school’s seats. So this year, the archdiocese piloted a new tuition-aid program. Initially, nine schools were given a portion of their usual subsidy early to use as partial tuition aid to attract and to retain students who otherwise could not attend. The goal was to help families, increase enrollment and increase tuition yield.
The early results were so promising we quickly expanded the program. By the opening of the school year, approximately $900,000 given to 33 schools resulted in over 530 new or retained students and over $1.8 million in tuition payments from families.
With these new initiatives, available tuition aid more than doubled to $2 million; the actual need, however, is $18 million. Clearly, the church cannot meet the need on its own. Partnerships—with private scholarship groups and between families and governments—are critical for achieving educational equality for families. Considering the contribution of Catholic schools to the broader community, it makes sense. Last year, Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Washington saved local governments close to $385 million in tax expenditures for public schools.
Eleven years ago Cardinal James Hickey, then archbishop of Washington, was urged to close 12 inner-city Catholic schools. Instead, under his direction a consortium was founded with central oversight of eight schools and a mandate to strengthen academics, raise money and manage many administrative tasks so that principals and teachers could focus on students and academic needs.
The archdiocese and donors invested more than $68 million in these schools over 11 years. The consortium model proved to be an effective tool to sustain Catholic schools in the heart of the city, ensure their academic quality and provide faith-based and value-centered formation.
We learned, however, that even a successful model has limitations. The original consortium eventually expanded to 14 schools between 2002 and 2005 in an effort to keep other financially distressed schools from closing. Two schools consolidated; but by spring 2007, it was clear that the stress of the rapid expansion, combined with declining enrollments in many schools, had overwhelmed the consortium financially. The archdiocese covered a deficit of $7 million this past year alone.
After studies and consultations with advisory groups and 1,300 people at 12 parishes, approval eventually was given to continue five schools as Catholic, one under parish oversight and four as the Consortium of Catholic Academies. The others were converted to values-based charter schools as an alternative to closing. This reorganization allows us to sustain a continued presence of Catholic schools throughout the city—there are 21 in Washington, D.C., today, including 12 parish elementary schools—and ensure that schools serving lower income neighborhoods have access to needed financial and administrative resources. The archdiocese will provide $1 million to the consortium this year, and donors another $2 million.
The consortium is one of several innovative partnerships. Holy Redeemer School, not far from the U.S. Capitol, is a Magnificat School. This unique five-year partnership between the school, the archdiocese and the University of Notre Dame brings professional development, technical assistance and other support to get this inner-city school back on its feet.
Last year, the archdiocese opened Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School in partnership with the Salesians of Don Bosco and with support from the business community and the national Cristo Rey Network. Very low-income students get a Catholic college preparatory education through a creative work-study program. They “job share” at corporate offices, gaining valuable work experience and covering a large portion of their tuition.
The archdiocese also has established several regional elementary schools in outer suburbs, with costs and responsibilities shared by several parishes.
The Diocese of Pittsburgh, where I served as bishop for 18 years, in an effort to keep open as many Catholic schools as possible, had been giving a number of inner-city schools huge and unsustainable subsidies for years. By 1988, the diocese was approaching insolvency and had to take dramatic steps.
Out of this crisis came the Extra Mile Education Foundation. Business and foundation leaders across the community—Protestant, Jewish, Orthodox and Catholic—rallied to establish a foundation that would raise funds from a cross-section of foundations, corporations, businesses and individuals to support what now includes six urban schools, serving a student body that is predominantly African-American, economically disadvantaged and non-Catholic. Approximately 1,000 children a year receive a quality education. None have to repeat ninth grade, and close to 100 percent go on to graduate from high school.
Partnerships Make the Difference
The Extra Mile Foundation and the Consortium of Catholic Academies are two of many models nationwide that demonstrate that it is not only possible to engage the wider civic and business communities in the work of saving Catholic schools that serve the needy, but that it can be done well.
When we look to the wider community for partnerships, we do so with an awareness that more and more of our neighbors recognize the unique gift that Catholic education is to the community. This is even more obvious as we serve more non-Catholics. Our students graduate with a formation in self-discipline, personal integrity and moral values that come out of the faith-based environment of the school. These schools merit the support of the entire community.
Simple justice requires that parents benefit from the monies that we all pay in taxes for the education of all children. Parents have every right to expect that they can choose a school that meets the needs of their children and that the money they have paid for education will follow their child. Without funding, parents have no real school choice.
The Catholic Church cannot be expected—out of the free-will offerings of the faithful and other donors—to continue to provide such a wide-serving system of successful schools all by itself.
In the District of Columbia, a promising federal pilot program, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, is helping bring educational equality to low-income families. Federal grants provide a limited number of families with tuition and some fees up to $7,500. For those at our archdiocesan schools, the program typically pays $4,500 for tuition. The difference between the grant and the real cost of education is paid by the archdiocese and the Catholic schools. While studies show high parent satisfaction and academic progress—the 2008 valedictorian at Archbishop Carroll High School was an Opportunity Scholarship recipient—the program, unfortunately, will end at the conclusion of this school year unless Congress reauthorizes it.
Another example of partnerships working well can be seen in Pennsylvania. In 2001, the legislature authorized a business tax credit to support scholarships for lower- and middle-income students to attend non-public schools, and professional development for teachers in public and non-public schools. In the first six years, businesses donated $360 million for scholarships, benefiting nearly 160,000 students and funding thousands of public education initiatives.
An effort is underway in Maryland for a similar partnership involving government, businesses, families and schools, called Boast (Building Opportunities for All Students and Teachers).
Partnerships like these—with school families, parishes, local dioceses, the business and donor community and public entities—are critical to the success of our schools. With them, the future of Catholic schools and the students they serve looks bright. It is time to think differently about how we sustain Catholic schools so generations of children can benefit from the firm foundation and great education they provide. All you have to do is look at the happy faces of the children in our schools. Our kids know that our schools work.
From the archives, why the manger at Bethlehem was the first Catholic school.