Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Future of Catholic Schools

With the discussion relating to Catholic homeschooling last week, I was strongly reminded of this (very good) article on the future of Catholic schools in the spring issue of National Affairs which a good friend pointed me towards a while back. As the article points out, the issues facing Catholic schools are many, though perhaps the biggest are:
  • Public schools are no longer the explicitly Protestant institutions they were back in the 1900-1960 era
  • The teaching orders whose virtually free labor made Catholic schools relatively affordable in their golden age virtually ceased to exist in the decades following Vatican II
  • Changing demographics have moved Catholic populations away from many of the schools already built, and in this day and age building new ones is vastly more expensive
This has left many dioceses struggling with whether to shutter schools, and many of the continuing urban Catholic schools serving students who are mostly not Catholic.
The Archdiocese of New York, for example, reported in 2008 that, among its inner-city schools, nearly two-thirds of students lived below the poverty line and more than 90% were racial minorities. In Washington, D.C., as of 2007, more than 70% of students attending the lowest-income Catholic schools were non-Catholic. In Memphis's inner-city "Jubilee" Catholic schools, as of 2008, 96% of students lived below the poverty line and 81% were non-Catholic. In fact, over the past 40 years, the portion of minority students in Catholic schools overall increased by 250%, and the share of non-Catholic students increased by 500%.

Many of the people associated with these schools will explain that they are motivated not by an obligation to evangelize but by a desire to fulfill their faith's longstanding commitment to service. Among them, an unofficial creed has slowly emerged: "We don't serve these students because they are Catholic, we serve them because we are Catholic." Regardless of one's position on public support for religiously affiliated entities, it is difficult not to acknowledge that these schools are fully engaged in the noble vocation of public service, civil rights, and social justice. The challenge now is to clear the way for public support of that vocation — and one promising policy innovation may provide the solution.
The situation in the suburban Los Angeles Catholic schools that I was familiar with as a youth had similarities and differences. They didn't lack for students, because a crumbling public school system left many parents searching for private alternatives. But there were a great many non-Catholic parents as well as Catholic ones eager to send their children to schools with tuition substantially lower than secular private schools. (Charters didn't exist back then, so that dynamic may be changing.) As a result, with waiting lists for admission, schools often selected parents likely to pay their tuition bills regardless of religious affiliation, and as student bodies became less Catholic, so did the instruction. Aside from the wishy-washiness of many of the people in parish or diocesan religious education, if you have a lot of parents paying your bills who would like a vaguely "religious heritage" but not very rigorous catechesis, money usually ends up talking.

Either way, however, what you get is Catholic schools which are run by Catholics, and to some extent for Catholics, but which do not have imparting the faith to students and maintaining an explicitly Catholic culture as a primary mission. And as this ceases to be the case, many of the parents who are most serious about their children's faith (and thus who are most likely to provide lots of support and volunteer hours to a school) will start to wonder if it's really worth making major financial sacrifices in order to send their children to a Catholic school.

What the solution to this is I honestly can't say. In a world in which we don't have the massive numbers of religious brothers and sisters who staffed schools in the past -- people willing to accept a live of celibacy and poverty in order to care for the wider Church family rather than have families of their own -- operating traditional format private schools is financially prohibitive without a tithing culture which goes far beyond what Catholics generally achieve. And with a more educated laity, homeschooling and independent Catholic schools are realistic alternatives in a way in which they simply were not 50 or 100 years ago. It may be that the age of the Catholic school systems (an era which lasted less than 100 years in this country) is simply passed, not to return. If it is to continue, it would seem that it will need to do so through substantial change over the years to come.


Tracy said...

I agree with most of the points you made. My children attend our parochial school and my husband is actually the principal of the school as well. We live in the Baptist Bible belt and Catholicism has struggled here. That being said our parish is amazing and thriving. Tons of young families. The school is not doing quite as well. It is a wonderful school academically and they have worked hard to create an authentic Catholic identity. There is no reason why there should be an empty seat in this school but there are plenty. I think part of the problem is that there is a lack of trust and willingness to trust Catholic schools/lack of valuing of Catholic education in this area as well as this idea that has taken hold in many Catholic circles that "good" Catholics homeschool. I can't help but think that if everyone did as Blessed Mother Teresa suggested and put their drop in the bucket then the Church and society in general would not have near the problems it does. So yes there need to be changes in Catholic schools but I think even more so there needs to be changes in Catholics, specifically Catholic parents!

Foxfier said...

Another effect you don't directly cover: as they become less explicitly Catholic, they become more liberal.
(Broadly. I think the quote goes something like "all organizations not explicitly otherwise eventually default to liberalism"? If it's not, it should be-- I've noticed it all over, even in MMOs.)

The more times Catholic parents get slapped with the realization that this or that Parish school is public school with uniforms, the more likely they are to automatically reject the notion if the whole idea is to get their kids a Catholic education. There's a reason causing scandal is such a big deal....

(Incidentally, this has been on my mind of late because I'm trying to organize how my kids will be taught, and if the local Catholic school is too expensive or not Catholic, I'll have to get started networking for home schooling.)

Jennifer Fitz said...

Affordability has to do with expectations, too. We have three catholic elementary schools sort of near us, and a fourth a bit farther away.

Three are prohibitively expensive. They are the ones with the beautiful new buildings, cutting edge programs, and high-tech infrastructure. The school that still looks and acts like it did back when it was founded in 1950? Still has 1950 prices.

[And the marketing goes with: The expensive schools sell their prestigious academics. The more affordable school just tries to be a good catholic school where you can get a decent education and be a well-rounded member of the community.]


Martha said...

I have noticed as well that our Catholic school tries to compete with area private schools in buildings, infrastructure, etc, while trying to keep tuition in the parochial school (not private school) range (which here in N. TX, is $6-7K/yr). Personally, I'd give up a lot of the technology in order to lower costs. But the many many parents in our school who have their eyes on the top area Catholic high schools would not agree with me, and unlike me, they pay full tuition. So I assume they have more pull. They still want an authentically Catholic education, for the most part, and for that I am thankful.

JMB said...

Where I live property taxes are so high and burdensome and account for most of the local school levy, that most Catholics chose to send their children to public school, especially for elementary school. We were sending our children to parochial school and then our property tax bill hit 15K a year and we were spending an additional 10K on tuition and it didn't seem worth the sacrifice to us. Now our taxes are 20K per year. Unfortunately I don't see this turning around in NJ unless there's some radical change in the way school funds are levied.

Interestingly though, private Catholic same sex high schools are thriving here! Our son is attending one and they are picking off students left and right from good home school districts. The sports are the big draw, but for us it was the opportunity to be in a same sex environment, educated by brothers who understand how boys are.

bearing said...

One of my pet peeves is Catholic high schools that brag, "99% of graduates enter college."

What that says to me? "Non-college-bound students don't deserve a Catholic education."

Darwin said...

(Thanks for the tip-off, Foxfier. I removed the spam comment.)

Anonymous said...

What about poor Catholics? I'm a Catholic who is in public school, not because my parents prefer me there, but because it's hard enough for my parents to pay the gas bill, so how can we afford a Catholic education for me. I'm tired of the "prep school" feel that has pervaded Catholic schools these days. I would venture to say that many parents who send their kids to Catholic school, do so not because they care about the Catholic aspect, but because of their upper middle class, elitist attitudes toward public education. At least that's how it seems in my diocese.