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Chapter 1: Catholic Schools Are a Good Investment Today

For nearly 50 years, American K-12 Catholic education was in a quiet retreat. Thousands of schools were shuttered. Enrollment plummeted by millions. Though heroic educators and generous donors stemmed the tide in many places, even creating exemplars of what was possible, forecasts were bleak. The threat seemed existential. Education journals carried articles titled, “Can Catholic Schools Be Saved?”

But thanks to an unprecedented wave of social entrepreneurialism and some innovative public policies—both fueled by philanthropy—we may be witnessing a renaissance in Catholic K-12 education. New approaches to organizing, governing, funding, and staffing these schools are showing that this sector can be financially sustainable, in addition to producing terrific student outcomes. Donors of all faiths, and even no faith, are participating—recognizing the valuable things that Catholic schools do for the nation, in particular by educating inner-city children who have been failed by many other sectors. (See the Spring 2010 cover story of Philanthropy magazine for reporting on the role of non-Catholic donors in boosting Catholic schools.)

At the end of a roller-coaster ride

America’s first Catholic schools were created decades before our nation was even founded. They served millions of needy children, and lifted up waves of impoverished immigrant families. As our urban demographics shifted dramatically during the twentieth century, it was increasingly low-income African-American and Hispanic families who flocked to urban Catholic schools as an alternative to dysfunctional government-run schools. While adjusting to meet the changing needs of their students and communities, Catholic schools continued to provide rigorous, faith-inspired education.

But growing labor costs, rising secularization, the shift of ­Catholic parishioners to the suburbs, and an increasingly competitive schools landscape pushed Catholic schools to insolvency in many places. While in 1965 more than 13,000 Catholic schools served 5.6 million students, 50 years later there were 6,568 schools serving 1.9 million students.

Catholic educators and donors have responded to these downtrends with determination and creativity, and American K-12 Catholic schooling is now reorganizing to bounce back. A wider range of school operators are inspiring improved funding, governing themselves in more innovative and businesslike ways, creating more pipelines for staffing talent, and producing clearer results. Philanthropic support is broader than ever. Ed Hanway, former chairman of Cigna and longtime Catholic-schools donor, believes “There has never been a better time to invest in Catholic education.”

The past is prologue

To understand where Catholic K-12 schooling stands and why its future is brightening, it is helpful to understand its mercurial past.

America’s first Catholic school was opened by Franciscan friars in 1606 in present-day St. Augustine, Florida. Throughout the 1600s and 1700s, education in America was regarded mostly as a private matter to be provided by family members, tutors, religious leaders, and others with specific areas of expertise. By the early nineteenth century more formal community schools began to emerge, and the Catholic Church became one provider. As waves of Catholic immigrants arrived from Europe, Catholic schools began to spring up around parish churches.

Catholics represented only one percent of the population during the Revolutionary era, but by 1891 more than one out of eight ­Americans were Catholic. Cities like New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati were awash in Catholic children, most of them poor. By 1900, approximately 3,500 parish schools existed in the U.S. These schools typically took on the character of their communities, ­emphasizing ethnic culture and native-language instruction.

Responding to the growing demand for Catholic schoolteachers, Elizabeth Seton founded the Sisters of Charity in 1808 to train nuns as educators (see box). In 1852, America’s Catholic bishops committed to a large expansion of parochial schools where Catholic children could be taught. By then, and for generations to come, a large majority of the teachers in these schools were women living under religious vows.

catholic school enrollment

At the same time Catholic schools were spreading, states and local governments were developing the nation’s early system of ­public ­education. By the time Horace Mann became the first secretary of the ­Massachusetts Board of Education in 1837, “common schools” were proliferating. Though government-run, they were not secular, and their Protestant character ran counter to some Catholic teachings. Many required devotional readings out of the King James Version of the Bible, which was not used by the Catholic Church, and some textbooks had passages disparaging Catholics.

In many cities, Catholic students migrated to schools provided by their church, but by 1875, 14 states had passed laws prohibiting “­sectarian” schools from receiving public funds. President Grant gave a speech that year urging that “a good common school education” should be “unmixed with atheistic, pagan, or sectarian tenets.” Speaker of the House James Blaine introduced a Constitutional amendment ­embodying this idea. It was narrowly defeated in the U.S. Senate, but by 1890 “Blaine Amendments” had been added to 29 state constitutions, explicitly prohibiting public funds from going to sectarian schools.

number of catholic schools

In 1884 the U.S. Catholic bishops took their next step and required every Catholic parish to establish a school, and required parents to send their children to it. Although not all parishes complied, Catholic-school enrollment exploded from 405,000 children in 1880 to 1.9 million in 1920. The landmark 1925 Supreme Court decision Pierce v. Society of ­Sisters upheld the right of parents to send their children to private schools, and declared state requirements that students must attend public schools to be un-Constitutional. Catholic-school enrollment grew rapidly over the next decades.

The post-World War II Baby Boom accelerated this growth. The number of children in Catholic K-12 schools peaked at 5.6 million (attending 13,000 schools) during the 1965-66 school year. This represented 12 percent of all the schoolchildren in the U.S., and 87 percent of the students outside of government-run schools.

Then change roared across the nation. White Catholic families departed cities in droves. Church membership and Catholic observance declined, and the flow of new nuns and priests shrunk to a trickle. With anti-Catholic bigotry having evaporated (the nation elected its first Catholic President in 1960), fewer parents felt the need to shelter their children in Catholic schools. Between 1966 and 2014, the number of Catholic schools tumbled from 13,292 to 6,568.

Since they were financed primarily through parishioners’ tithes and the donated labor of nuns and priests, Catholic schools had been nearly free. As parishioners and vocational volunteers disappeared, however, so did the income stream of these schools. With the proportion of the teaching staff under religious vows having dropped to just 7 percent by 2000, the cost of hiring lay teachers brought soaring financial demands on parishes.

Meanwhile, charter schools, first opening in the early 1990s, created further enrollment losses for urban Catholic schools. Charters are public schools that receive government funding, along with philanthropic support, and are therefore tuition-free. In many cities, charters occupy the same ecological role as Catholic schools—a safer, ­character-based, higher-quality alternative to the neighborhood’s assigned public school. Except charters are free to those who attend them.

Together, these factors produced dramatic Catholic-school enrollment declines. Between 2004 and 2014, 1,856 Catholic schools were closed or consolidated—a 23 percent loss. Thousands of Catholic schools continue to provide vital services. Continuing challenges, however, threaten their sustainability.

Recruiting, training, and retaining highly effective Catholic-school educators is a perennial concern, especially given the lower salaries at Catholic schools compared to nearby public schools. Many Catholic schools have had weak and unimaginative financial management. Some old-line Catholic educators have resisted sharing performance data, ignored improved methods of school operation and governance, and neglected innovation. This has inhibited the sector’s ability to adapt to a constantly changing and increasingly competitive K-12 landscape.

In the past decade, however, a growing number of bishops, priests, school leaders, teachers, and donors have begun embracing fresh approaches. Philanthropists have demanded and supported many new ventures in school operation, governance, financing, student recruitment, teacher training, and community partnership. Entirely new networks of Catholic schools have been created by social entrepreneurs and donors.

How you behave, even more than what you know, is the greatest predictor of your long-term success. Catholic schools have known that for decades.

Parish schools have been nudged into sharing expertise and resources. Authority has been transferred in places to lay boards with much more management expertise than priests or bishops. Some schools have reorganized into networks independent of their parish or diocese while remaining fully Catholic. New programs at Catholic universities are training more teachers and school leaders. Educators are using technology to modernize instruction and ease budget pressures. Some schools have specialized in areas like dual-language learning, classical models, or modern vocational education.

At the same time, public policies have grown much ­friendlier—driven mostly by philanthropic advocacy to school choice and parental options in education. Wisconsin broke ground with its 1989 voucher program, followed by other school-choice supports in Ohio in 1995, Arizona in 1997, Florida in 1999, and Pennsylvania in 2001. In the landmark 2002 case Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized scholarship programs that include religious schools to be Constitutional. There are now 57 (and ­growing) school-choice programs, managed by two-dozen states, that help nearly half a million students attend religious or private schools.

All of these changes leave Catholic schools better primed for a comeback than at any moment in the last half century. And these schools increasingly attract support from non-Catholic but public-spirited donors who did not previously give to this cause.

Why do we need Catholic schools anyway?

Catholic schools, like other non-governmental schools, retain a great deal of operational flexibility that district-run schools, and to a lesser extent charter schools, lack. Catholic schools are free of constraints related to educator certification, union rules, content standards, time requirements, and much more.

Catholic schools are also able to include religion and moral instruction within their activities. Faith and character development has been at the heart of Catholic schooling since its beginning, and remains an essential complement to academic development. “It’s not what you know, but how you behave that’s the greater predictor of your long-term success,” notes Catholic-school donor Leo Linbeck III. “Catholic schools have known that and followed through with it for decades.”

Catholic education also has a long history of superior academic outcomes, especially for historically underserved populations. In a summary of the research on the “Catholic school advantage,” the Alliance for Catholic Education at the University of Notre Dame identifies the following results:

  • Students in Catholic schools demonstrate higher academic achievement than similar students in district-run schools.
  • The achievement gap between races and income groups is smaller in faith-based schools.
  • Black and Latino students who attend Catholic schools are more likely to graduate from both high school and college than their peers from public schools.
  • “Multiply disadvantaged” children particularly benefit from ­Catholic schools.
  • Graduates of Catholic high schools earn higher wages than peers who graduate from public schools.
  • Graduates of Catholic high schools are more likely to vote than their peers who graduate from public schools.
  • Catholic school graduates are more civically engaged, more committed to service, and more tolerant of others.

Most Catholic schools produce academic results that are notably better than conventional public schools serving the same children. Their clearest successes lay outside of academics, however, in encouraging constructive, pro-social behavior. Few inner-city Catholic schools are at the same academic standard of today’s very best charter schools. So there is lots of room for them to raise intellectual standards.

Donors impressed by the ways that Catholic schools already strengthen our society, and their potential to become even more ­successful, have countless opportunities to support and extend their good work. They can also speed improvement by trimming back in places where ­hidebound practices are not being updated.

“Sometimes withholding philanthropy is the best kind of assistance,” argues Joe Womac of the Specialty Family Foundation. Christine Healey of the Healey Education Foundation suggests that “it’s important to know when to say no—and be willing to follow through.”

In this era of reinvention, Catholic-school donors also need to be tolerant of some risk. Investments in unproven approaches will be necessary if this large and valuable but still fragile social sector is to be updated. Risk is something that philanthropy is generally better positioned to handle than government or business.

“Failure is fine so long as it’s not too expensive,” says Dan Peters of the Ruth and Lovett Peters Foundation. “It’s not a great hazard for a foundation or wealthy individual to spend $10,000 or $50,000 to try something new. We need to test things on a small scale. If it works, then expand it. If not, learn from it.”

That sentiment was echoed by Stephanie Saroki de García, co-founder of Seton Education Partners. “Be willing to take risks—especially when you have a strong leader with a compelling idea,” she advises. “Seton was founded in 2009, during the height of the recession, and we now provide nearly 2,200 high-quality, urban Catholic school seats. Startup funding is the hardest to find, but it reaps the greatest returns. We would not exist were it not for a handful of funders who took a chance on our leadership and ideas for a new way forward.”

Some donors like to support innovation. Others fund only proven models. Many do something in between. Regardless of what category you fall in, we suggest there are three broad categories of activity where there are rich opportunities for you to support ­Catholic schools.

Certain donors will be most interested in direct financial help for students so they can access Catholic schools. Scholarships and similar initiatives can help families find, understand, and afford religious schooling. Chapter 2 provides ideas and strategies for such philanthropists.

Other donors may want to help individual schools or groups of schools improve and expand their operations and programming. There are many opportunities here: Replicating successful campuses. Helping the sector secure top teachers, principals, and business managers. Supporting new governance arrangements. Launching shared central-office capabilities. See Chapters 3 and 4 for information along these lines.

And there will also be donors who want to encourage systemic change. This can include advocating for improved public policies, or funding ­citywide reform agendas. Chapters 5 and 6 will delve into those approaches.

Whatever path today’s donor chooses, he or she will find more opportunities for high returns on comparatively modest investments than most other social sectors can offer.

Elizabeth Seton, mother of Catholic teachers

Born in 1774, Elizabeth Bayley grew up in a prominent Episcopal family in New York City. At 19, she married wealthy businessman William Seton, and they had five children and enjoyed a prominent social life. Bankruptcy and the death of her husband jolted the course of Elizabeth’s life, however, ultimately leading her to a deep devotion to the Catholic faith and a lifetime of serving the poor.

In order to support herself and her children, Elizabeth opened an academy for young ladies. After her conversion to Catholicism Elizabeth accepted a teaching position at St. Mary’s College in Baltimore. In 1809 she became a nun.

Then she started a Maryland school dedicated to the education of Catholic girls, and founded an order of religious sisters who helped her establish free schools across the eastern seaboard. Thus began the ministry of Catholic women in America devoted to educating children.

Though Mother Seton died in 1821, her religious sisters continued to bring schools and orphanages to places like Cincinnati and New Orleans, and they established the first hospital west of the Mississippi River in St. Louis. Seton was canonized in 1975 for her role in pioneering U.S. Catholic education, making her the first native-born American to be recognized as a saint by her church. A number of institutions and initiatives honor her name, including Seton Hall University, many churches, and Seton Education Partners, a nonprofit helping to revitalize Catholic schools through technology and blended learning.

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