Renaissance Ahead?

Catholic schools are on the cusp of resurrection

For 50 years, American K-12 Catholic education had been 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. 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 the dawn of 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 impressed by the ways ­Catholic education strengthens our society now have many exciting opportunities to support these schools. In this era of reinvention, Catholic-school donors will need to be creative, experimental, and tolerant of some risk. Investments in new and sometimes unproven approaches will be necessary if this large and valuable but still-fragile social sector is to be updated.

There are three broad categories where rich opportunities exist today to bolster Catholic schools. Some donors will be most interested in direct aid that helps students access Catholic schools. Scholarships can help families find, understand, and afford religious schooling.

Other donors may want to help schools improve their programming and expand their operations. There are many opportunities here: Helping the sector secure top teachers, principals, and business managers. Replicating successful campuses. Supporting new governance arrangements. Pioneering new curricula. Enrolling new categories of families. Launching shared central-office capabilities.

And there will be certain donors who want to encourage systemic change. This can include advocating for improved public policies or funding ambitious ­citywide reform agendas. Whatever path you choose, the possibilities of achieving high returns on comparatively modest investments in Catholic-school education are now encouragingly high.

Eyes on the waitlist

A 2014 Georgetown University report found that 53 percent of Catholic parents identify tuition costs as “somewhat” or “very much” a problem when deciding whether or not to enroll their children in Catholic schools. Half of the parents who ultimately enroll their children say the same thing. Eliminating this barrier is the most direct way to help more students access a high-quality Catholic-school education. Our new book on this topic includes lots of information on the best ways to offer scholarships that boost both students and schools.

Philanthropists can also improve access to Catholic schools by helping more parents understand that such schools are an excellent option for their children. The best urban charter schools often have large waiting lists of students who would like to attend—hundreds of children in some places. While more than a million students now wait to get into charter schools that lack room for them, desks sometimes sit empty in nearby high-quality Catholic schools. Some parents feel they cannot afford to pay tuition (unaware of how much scholarship aid is now available). Others simply don’t know that Catholic schools are a good option for their families. Donors can bridge this gap.

Organizations like Families Empowered in Houston help families on charter-school waitlists learn about and access other high-quality school options, including ­Catholic schools. Families Empowered provides information about schools in various neighborhoods, details of enrollment, and more. The organization uses phone calls, e-mail, social media, and choice fairs to communicate with families about their other charter, district, magnet, Catholic, and independent school options.

When parents apply to either KIPP or YES Prep charter schools in ­­­Houston­—both of which are high-quality but heavily oversubscribed networks—they can check a box to have their information shared with Families Empowered. If the household ends up on a KIPP or YES Prep waitlist, Families Empowered contacts them and provides information about other available options.

Families Empowered has worked with the Houston Catholic ­Archdiocese from the beginning, publicizing local Catholic schools and scholarship opportunities. “This is a win-win for everyone,” explains FE director Colleen Dippel. “Charters can’t serve all the kids on their waitlists, but they still want them to be successful. We’re committed to supporting Catholic schools because we need them to be a viable option for parents. There’s huge potential to close the gap if all the waitlisted kids get into other good schools. Making Catholic schools a viable option for families further accelerates the flywheel of choice.”

This year, Families Empowered piloted an “open-seat campaign.” School leaders identify the number of available spaces in their schools, and Families Empowered reaches out to the families in its database, while simultaneously sending schools a spreadsheet containing contact information for prospective students. The schools follow up with these families directly.

Families Empowered plans to expand this effort to include additional Catholic schools next year. A local donor has funded this work, allowing Families Empowered to provide the referrals free of charge. Catholic schools that receive these lists of interested families are required to have the infrastructure to manage increased inquiries and enrollments. This means having staff to answer phones, respond to questions, get back to parents, walk families through the application process, take them on campus tours, and ultimately serve them as enrolled customers.

Rethinking governance

There is a consensus today that the traditional Catholic school run by the local church is unsustainable in many places. When The Philanthropy Roundtable asked Catholic-school donors about barriers to the sector’s growth, 69 percent named “diocesan bureaucracy.”

Understandably, many priests and bishops are hesitant about altering longstanding customs and formulas. But resistance seems to be softening. Unprecedented new arrangements for governing the Catholic schools that have been put into place in prominent locations like New York City and Philadelphia are speeding change. The question is no longer whether Catholic schools should be run differently; it’s about how.

Philanthropists are heavily involved in these conversations. By insisting on updated structures and helping to pay for them, donors are having a powerful influence on this crucial transition. New organizations are being created by philanthropists to privately manage groups of Catholic schools. These nonprofits provide strong leadership and mission, create business-like common operating practices, and allow schools to share knowledge and services.

The new networks have central offices that standardize budgeting, hiring, fundraising, procurement, curriculum, and building acquisition and management. Principals are freed up to focus on instruction, and priests ­concentrate on spiritual and moral guidance, where they are best qualified. These new arrangements have in several instances produced chains of schools that are both academically excellent and financially sustainable.

To make this new structure work, a diocese must be willing to devolve most school-governing authority to the new management organization. In some cases a bishop grants complete operating and management authority over a set of schools to a board, foundation, or other entity that functions as the governing body. There are limits on the jurisdiction of these new operators, but many of them look and act a lot like the charter-school chains that set consistent standards across their campuses.

Between 1999 and 2004, large philanthropic gifts helped the ­Diocese of Memphis reopen several closed Catholic schools. In 2010, former ­charter-school leader David Hill was named director of academic operations for the so-called Jubilee Schools, and he instituted changes across the network—extending the school day, strengthening school culture, putting more emphasis on attracting and retaining high-quality teachers and principals.

Financial challenges, ­however, continued. The schools serve the most impoverished families in the region, without public funds, and the ­housing-foreclosure recession forced the network to dip into its donor-provided endowment. So in ­October 2014, Bishop Terry Steib announced that the nine ­Jubilee Schools would spin off from the diocese as the Jubilee Catholic Schools Network, with Hill as president. It is intended that the network’s new independence will make fundraising easier.

Hill is now in charge of all aspects of the schools, including academics, business, and development. He reports to overseeing directors. “We now have a new board that governs these schools exclusively,” he notes, and have “been given broad latitude and autonomy to make decisions.” He intends to “increase the work of the network while reducing the operational demands on principals. We want to free them to focus more on being academic leaders.”

The first major change since becoming an independent network has been a new school calendar and correlated changes in teacher and principal compensation. Starting with the ­2015-2016 school year, the Jubilee Schools will operate on a 200-day, year-round calendar. Hill stresses that formation of the independent Jubilee Schools ­Network will in no way alter the schools’ Catholic foundation: “Our schools will not lose their Catholic identities through this transition. If anything it’s going to strengthen our Catholicity.”

New management organizations like the one in Memphis have exciting potential to bring not only good performance but also sustained expansion to Catholic schooling—something the old Catholic school structure has found almost impossible for generations. While largely autonomous parish-run schools will forever be an important part of K-12 Catholic schooling, we’re now seeing useful variations on that theme. This experimentation is a positive sign. If donors will strengthen and improve the new school networks, and the renewed energy and entrepreneurialism they represent, they have potential to become one of this era’s major contributions to Catholic education.

The living endowment

Prior to 1960, nearly all Catholic-school teachers and principals were members of religious communities—sisters, priests, or brothers. Today less than 3 percent of full-time Catholic-school staff are from an order. That transition has not been easy.

Catholic schools were spoiled by the essentially free work of generations of religious men and women—what was sometimes called “the living ­endowment.” Lay educators require wages, benefits, and retirement plans that are at least reasonably consonant with district-run and charter schools. The average base pay of a public-school teacher was $53,100 in 2012, compared to just $40,200 for private-school teachers of all sorts. Lower pay brings higher turnover. Of all private-school teachers today, 24 percent are in their first three years of teaching, compared to just 13 percent of public-school teachers.

Recruiting a new endowment of devoted educators into Catholic ­schooling is eminently doable. The important work being done in urban Catholic schools is invigorating, ­life-enhancing activity. It’s not easy, but it’s not difficult work that scares away talented people—it’s lack of vision and reward. If top teachers and leaders are given support and latitude, they can fuel the resurgence of neighborhood schools that are indispensable buttresses to their communities.

Two University of Notre Dame priests—Tim Scully and Sean McGraw—demonstrated this by founding the Alliance for Catholic ­Education Teaching Fellows program. Often referred to as the “Catholic version of Teach For America,” their fellowship places highly talented college graduates into Catholic schools in underserved communities for a two-year service experience. It combines professional training, spiritual development, and personal support, and for years has attracted some of the top students coming out of Notre Dame.

ACE teachers take graduate ­coursework during their fellowship, and ultimately earn a master of education degree from Notre Dame and are eligible for teacher licensure in the state of Indiana. They live together in groups of four to seven peers during their placements, which helps fellows share burdens, successes, useful information, and emotional energy. The program immerses fellows in retreats, Masses, prayer services, and pastoral support.

The ACE program has trained more than 2,000 Catholic-school educators since its founding. And Notre Dame has nurtured similar intensive teacher-education programs at other Catholic universities. In 2005 the University Consortium for
Catholic Education solidified as the umbrella group. The UCCE consists of 13 university-based alternative teacher-certification programs that collectively place more than 400 teachers in Catholic schools each year.

This pipeline of talent has become important to Catholic-school principals, especially those in innovative networks. “We’re trying to tap every elite Catholic college in the country” when hiring new teachers, reports Kathleen ­Porter-Magee of the Partnership for Inner-city ­Education, which operates six Catholic schools in New York City.

Advocating for change

Sometimes, simply making the wider public aware of the importance of Catholic schools can achieve good things. In Wichita, Kansas, all ­Catholic primary and secondary schools have been tuition-free since 2002. It began when local pastor Thomas McGread challenged his flock to donate 5 ­percent of their incomes so all children in the parish could attend the elementary school for free. When his congregation rose to the challenge, he asked them to donate 8 percent so the parish could pay the Catholic high-school tuition of any local child. Again, parishioners stepped up. With this broad donor support, ­Catholic schooling in ­Wichita continues to grow—enrollment now stands at its highest level since 1967.

Another coalition acting to support Catholic schooling formed in March 2015 when donors like former American Express president Alfred Kelly and former PricewaterhouseCoopers CEO Samuel Di Piazza formed a new political action committee aimed at preserving New York’s Catholic schools. Catholics Count will raise $10 million to help it compete meaningfully in the state’s capital for public policies that are more friendly to Catholic education.

Another important innovation of the past decade or two that is now helping ­Catholic schools turn a corner is the spread of school-choice programs that allow at least a modest flow of public resources to follow a child when he enrolls in a Catholic (or other religious or private) school. As of 2015, 57 different school-choice funding programs existed in 29 states. Vouchers and tax credits are the commonest offerings. The number of children with access to school-choice assistance has grown from just 29,000 in 2000 to 354,000 in 2014. At the moment, six ­states—Florida, Arizona, Pennsylvania, ­Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin—account for nearly nine out of ten of the students who have school-choice benefits. But thanks to active donor support the expansion of school choice is likely to extend further, perhaps into states like New York in the near future.

Donors who want to feed this expansion of school-choice payments can support the advocacy organizations that are enabling it. For instance, the American Federation for Children Growth Fund is a leader across the nation in organizing and providing information on behalf of school choice that includes private and religious schools. It publishes data on school choice, basic information on programs by state, model legislation, and the annual School Choice Yearbook. The AFC Growth Fund invests in states with potential for enacting or expanding school-choice programs—developing state leaders, communicating with policymakers about the importance of school choice, reinforcing parent advocacy, and helping implement choice programs. As a 501(c)(3) it does not partake in ­lobbying or direct political work.

Its sister organization the ­American Federation for Children is a 501(c)(4) equipped to lobby and advocate with officeholders and thought leaders. A third partner, the American ­Federation for Children Action Fund, is a 527 political action committee that supports candidates for political office who have been helpful to the cause of school choice. This tripartite structure of information and local support, lobbying, and political backup for allies is a time-tested way to advance educational reform.

In addition to national groups like the federation, there are lots of state and local groups supporting ­Catholic schooling. Boston Advocates for ­Catholic Education, Tomorrow’s Hope (Long Island, N.Y.), Parents Alliance for ­Catholic Education (­Massachusetts), and Ohio Advocates for Catholic Schools are examples. Donors eager to build wider understanding and support for Catholic schools need not start from scratch; in many cases they can reinforce organizations with networks and infrastructure already in place.

Exactly how you invest in ­Catholic schools will depend on your interests and expertise, your objectives, your funding levels, and your risk tolerance. But any donor with even modest resources and some creative force has the chance today to reimagine, retool, and reenergize a storied ­American institution. The upside is large, as ­Catholic schools undergo a modern-day renaissance and pull 2 million schoolchildren, many of them with bleak options outside of their classrooms, to a brighter future.

This article is adapted from The Philanthropy Roundtable’s new guidebook Catholic School Renaissance: A Wise Giver’s Guide to Strengthening a National Asset by Andy Smarick and Kelly Robson of Bellwether Education Partners.