Losing Our Religion: The Crisis in Catholic Education

Early in 2007, the Washington Post heralded the remarkable academic and financial turnaround of twelve inner-city parochial schools in Washington, D.C., operating as the Center City Consortium (CCC). But the hard-won triumph for the consortium’s administrators and donors was short-lived: By late summer, eight of the CCC schools were on the block, part of a proposed archdiocesan plan to guide their conversion into public charter schools.
Parents were frantic, some protesting at local church events. Pastors at the affected parishes geared up for a tough internal debate on whether their school would “go it alone” or join the new charter school entity brokered by the archdiocese. Catholics on the sidelines numbly absorbed the news, though some questioned the lack of transparency that accompanied Archbishop Donald Wuerl’s consultations.
By mid-November, the archbishop had made his decision: Seven parochial schools would join a new “values-based” charter school network, with administrators chosen by the archdiocese. Four schools would become part of a new consortium. Though several parishes considered holding on to their schools, only one, St. Augustine Catholic Church, based in an historic black parish, committed to raising the funds necessary to keep its school open. The most vulnerable schools among a total of 27 elementary, middle, and secondary Catholic schools in the District would be placed outside the fold. Deficit figures totaling millions were circulated to explain what had gone wrong. Yet many Catholics remained troubled by an approach that sought to save the schools by removing Christ from their classrooms.
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It wasn’t the first time the local church doubted its capacity to bankroll its neediest schools. In 1995, the archdiocese also considered wholesale closings, but then-Cardinal James Hickey — famous for his dogged commitment to the poor — backed off. Thus the CCC, a consortium of inner-city parochial schools, was born in 1997. That bailout called for the adoption of research-based curriculum materials, intensive teacher training, and shared administrative and financial resources.
“We spent 10 years trying to do everything we could,” insists Susan Gibbs, director of communications for the Archdiocese of Washington. “At this point we have to look at everything. Should we move to ‘true cost’ tuition? We are not where we were 20 years ago.”
Though $60 million had been pumped into the consortium over 10 years, additional cash infusions were necessary, overwhelming the archdiocese’s tuition aid reserves. Thom Duffy, executive director of the archdiocese’s Office of Finance, informed readers of the Catholic Standard, the archdiocesan paper, that the CCC represents just 11 percent of the 75 archdiocesan parochial schools but received $3 million this year. That sum dwarfed the entire amount reserved by the archdiocese for tuition subsidies, and contributed to a projected $43.7 million deficit over five years.
Red ink is nothing new for inner-city parish schools, even in the best of times. Dioceses throughout the country routinely badger wealthy Catholics and local corporations to subsidize impoverished elementary and secondary schools. During past decades, even after Catholic families departed and non-Catholic minority students comprised most of the student body in urban parochial schools, the bishops fought to keep them afloat. The schools brought the Catholic Faith to a new group of struggling American families. But that was not all. By every measure, the urban parochial school system offered the best hope for poor children to exit a life of poverty. The inner-city Catholic schools, bloodied but unbowed, testified to the Church’s preferential option for the poor more effectively than any episcopal confab on social justice. Close that struggling parish school and you might as well throw the kids out on the street. {mospagebreak}
Archbishop Wuerl’s decision — arriving on the heels of contentious school closings from Boston to Detroit to Los Angeles — suggests that church leaders have reached a turning point. Though many bishops still won’t acknowledge it, the Catholic parochial schools are experiencing a long-term, nationwide decline: in catechetical substance, in administrative and financial stability, and in parish loyalty. Asked to explain the CCC ‘s shift in status from quasi-miracle to basket case, archdiocesan officials identify several problems familiar to prelates running other big urban dioceses: a “leveling off” of the donor base — partly due to the clerical sex-abuse scandal, rising costs, a declining student population, and a larger pool of public charter schools competing for students. Research conducted by the Center for the Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University (CARA) underscored these problems and provided justification for Wuerl’s new “framework” for education.
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Fifty years ago, the Archbishop of Washington wouldn’t have dreamed of presenting a plan that essentially equates parish schools with a publicly financed alternative. For one thing, women religious still presided over many of the schools, and everyone knew the nuns were irreplaceable. But since the apogee of parochial education in the early 1960s, the U.S. bishops have learned to take little for granted. Back then, 5.2 million students attended roughly 13,000 schools. Now, though the U.S. Catholic population has doubled in the interim, and American Catholics are wealthier, 2.3 million students are enrolled in 7,589 schools.
The most obvious explanations for this development have been noted. What’s compelling about Archbishop Wuerl’s proposal is that it embraces, rather than resists, the newest threat to his urban schools — the charter school movement. Ask the archbishop why he returned to the drawing board and he would point to the charter schools that offer poor families a viable alternative to D.C.’s failing traditional public schools. That option didn’t exist during Cardinal Hickey’s time. And though Archbishop Wuerl is not the first Catholic leader to advance novel methods of shoring up church schools — and unloading others — the simultaneous conversion of seven parish schools into charter schools is unprecedented. The archbishop’s episcopal colleagues will be evaluating both the bottom-line impact of this bold strategy and the long-term consequences for the life of the local church.
In many respects, Washington, D.C., offers a portrait of American elementary education newly transformed by a vigorous school reform movement. The District is home to traditional public schools, a publicly funded voucher programand charter schools, elite private institutions — secular and religious — and parish schools all vying for students and donors. Parochial schools must work hard to stand out. The irony is that the presence of these once-sturdy institutions — beacons of order and accountability in blighted neighborhoods — helped to foment the local community’s desire for better schools.
The church’s commitment to the poor made Catholic leaders early advocates of education reform, particularly publicly financed voucher programs. But since the recent introduction of vouchers in the District, the law of unintended consequences has taken its toll.
In 2004, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Legislation, a small publicly funded voucher program, passed by one vote. Eight hundred CCC students now use vouchers, and another 300 students use them at other Catholic secondary and elementary schools. But the voucher program does not reimburse schools for actual per-student costs; it only pays the stated tuition. The difference — about $3,500 per student — is covered by the archdiocese and donors. The only way the program could provide full reimbursement is for the schools to increase tuition across the board, posing problems for families who don’t qualify for tuition assistance.
For now, though, the four remaining CCC schools are not in the position to turn down students with vouchers. The consortium will depend on the program until a better tuition subsidy plan can be devised. Thus, Archbishop Wuerl has advocated for the voucher program’s renewal in 2009, asserting that it “serves as a model of the real possibilities for family choice when government support is an option.” In a recent public statement, he asserted that “support for public, private (including Catholic) and charter schools — is the right approach to continue reforming the school system.”
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Charter schools have posed a greater challenge for Catholic educators. Wherever the public charter movement has established a beachhead, its progeny draw students away from parochial schools. “Many factors have contributed to our decision to convert those CCC schools into charter schools, but the presence of charter schools was the most decisive,” reports Patricia Weitzel-O’Neill, Superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Archdiocese of Washington. {mospagebreak}
“We have two to twelve charter schools within a one-mile radius of the CCC schools,” notes the superintendent. “Some [charters] have more than six hundred seats available. Not all are good. Collectively, the CCC schools perform better in the aggregate than the charter schools. But there are some charter schools that do very well, and 90 percent of the CCC families are non-Catholic.” Charter school providers that have made life tough for the CCC schools will be among the applicants vying to manage the new charter network.
Education reform initiatives have exposed the vulnerabilities of parish schools. But it’s equally true that competition has improved their programs, fueling an academic and managerial transformation. After Cardinal Hickey established the consortium, “best practices” were identified and integrated into the schools’ administration. Curriculum improvements were solidified with consortium-wide teacher training and collaboration. These changes made sense to struggling pastors, but they also burnished the consortium’s profile with Catholic and secular foundations that helped to fill the financial shortfall.
The long effort to stabilize the consortium makes the church’s failure to keep the schools Catholic especially frustrating. But the schools are stronger than they were, and students have benefited. The hard work could pay off again if the charter authority approves the archbishop’s plan and the students can remain in the buildings — minus the crucifixes and religious formation. At present, the District’s public school administrators are hungry for high-performing schools. Abysmal results from academic testing mandated by No Child Left Behind make public school officials eager to incorporate institutions that will bolster the system’s scores.
That, at least, is one argument the archdiocese has employed to calm fears regarding the schools’ long-term viability. Though church officials won’t say so, the conversion strategy carries considerable risk. True, the head of the D.C. public charter school board told news reporters he was “open” to the proposal. But no guarantees have been proffered, and even after approval, missteps by the new administration could undermine the new initiative.
Other elements of the proposal need further scrutiny. Advocates of the plan assert that the surviving CCC schools would benefit from an expected financial windfall derived from the charter school leases: The new charter schools are expected to receive approximately $12,000 to $15,000 per student — a big jump from the CCC tuition. But the superintendent won’t commit to any specific plan for sharing the proceeds from the charter school leases. “We’re hoping that some of the funding from the building rental will be targeted to support the remaining schools, but nothing has been agreed on,” she explained. Further negotiations between the archbishop and pastors at individual parishes holding the leases will be scheduled soon.
Early supporters of the conversion plan also suggested that the church, as the leaseholder, could secure the moral soundness of the new schools through the selection of an appropriate charter school provider. But Weitzel-O’Neill acknowledged that the church “won’t have any control over the content they [the charter schools] teach. Our hope is to pick an operator who will continue what we’re doing.” This very issue was a sticking point for the Archdiocese of New York, which has refused to lease any church buildings to charter school programs beyond early elementary grades. The archdiocese’s policy is designed to preemptively exclude New York public school sex-ed programs, which contradict Catholic moral teaching, from being taught in church buildings.
Archbishop Wuerl, no stranger to school closings, defines his proposal as a rearguard action to shore up defenses rather than a betrayal of his flock. He is among those U.S. bishops who have exhibited a hard-nosed determination to balance the books. It is a grim, thankless business that many old-school prelates could not stomach and left to their successors. In Pittsburgh, Archbishop Wuerl’s previous diocese, the number of Catholic students stands at approximately 29,000, down from 120,000 a half-century ago. There, Archbishop Wuerl’s massive reorganization led to the shuttering of 39 churches. The move bred considerable dissension in Pittsburgh and has fueled a sense of impending doom among some pastors in the Archdiocese of Washington.
Nationwide, the challenge of stabilizing the schools has elicited a variety of programs initiated by dioceses, religious orders, and individual Catholics. In Buffalo, parishes without schools pay a school “tax.” In Wichita, Catholic families don’t pay tuition, they “tithe” — supporting the broad mission of their parish, which includes the school. The Archdiocese of Indianapolis offers a scaled tuition program linked to family income. {mospagebreak}

In almost every major U.S. city, Catholic business leaders have collaborated with local bishops to keep the schools open. Peter Flanigan, the founder of New York’s Student-Sponsor Partnership, took note of the half-empty Catholic high schools and the pent-up demand from minority families that wanted better choices. He introduced a program that now matches 1,300 at-risk boys and girls with donor-mentors, backed up by corporate sponsors. Twenty Catholic high schools participate. A New York archdiocesan foundation, the Inner-City Scholarship Fund, raised more than $10 million in school grants and student scholarships this year, and there is a new archdiocesan program designed to fill every empty seat — an ambitious goal that would bring a total of 11,000 students into the system.
“The Catholic schools have been in crisis for fifty years,” observes Peter Flanigan. “We have not responded adequately, but maybe we are beginning to now. The real solution is vouchers that will allow Catholic schools to stay open or fail according to their merits. But — right now — the only solution is to find money to keep the schools open. In New York, when we offered 2,500 scholarships of $1,500 each we got 25,000 applications.”

Two religious teaching orders of men have created new educational models that address financial concerns. The Jesuit’s Cristo Rey Network offers poor students a college-prep education and part-time business internships that help cover costs. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has made the reform of U.S. high schools a primary concern, is a formidable supporter. There are now 12 schools in the Cristo Rey Network with six more on the way.
But the lure of tuition-free schools that operate independently of the public system also has provoked some novel moves by Catholic educators. Chicago is the home of two San Miguel schools — strong, tuition-free Catholic middle schools, founded by the Lasallian Christian Brothers. Eighteen more San Miguel schools have opened around the country, based in rough neighborhoods where parochial schools are closed or failing. Private donors and foundations cover almost 100 percent of costs.
In 1997, Chicago public school administrators invited Christian Brother Ed Siderewicz, co-founder of the San Miguel schools, to design a new public charter school model. In 2005, Catalyst Charter School opened its doors, and a second one has followed. Essentially, Brother Ed “found a way to translate the Lasallian educational philosophy and pedagogy into secular terms,” explains an assistant. He keeps one foot in Catholic education and another in the public sphere: the San Miguel schools and the Catalyst schools are separately incorporated with their own boards.
“Public schools have not been our business,” admits Brother Ed, who says he spent several years thinking about the proposal. “But visitors to both the San Miguel schools and the Catalyst schools say they feel the Lasallian charism. Our founding spirit was to provide a human and Christian education for the poor.”
New initiatives that will be of most interest to Washingtonians contemplating the CCC conversion plan were implemented in Texas, a fulcrum of education reform. There, two parish schools opted for charter school conversion, and the unique experience of each school underscores the unpredictable nature of the process. One school — St. Mary’s Academy Charter School in Beeville, Texas — retained its core teachers and administrators. The Catholic families stuck around, too. Once at risk of closing, the school is at capacity — even after adding more than a hundred seats. The school’s debts have been paid off and the local parish receives $40,000 a year in rent. This fall, the Texas Business and Education Coalition placed St. Mary’s among the top 5 percent of state schools.
Mrs. Ross Brown, assistant principal, insists that little has changed since the old days. “We had to take the crucifixes off the walls and put them in our pockets and drawers. But we still teach the same way. Most of the children here are Catholic and the principal is Catholic. God is here with us and He is the one who did not allow this school to die.”{mospagebreak}
The conversion process at St. Anthony’s School in Dallas took a different turn. Principal David Ray arrived in 2004, one year after the new charter school opened. “Coming from a traditional public school, I knew the state mandated tests,” recalls Ray, a Catholic. He says the curriculum was mediocre, and the changes took longer to implement because of teacher resistance. His second year, “I let go 80 percent of the staff.” Since then the school’s performance on state tests has skyrocketed. Based in an inner-city neighborhood with an aging parish, the school is full, but only four Catholic families remain.
One day, the dream fostered by school voucher proposals may be realized with the establishment of explicitly Catholic institutions operating as public charter schools. But Clint Bolick, a prominent advocate for state-based school choice programs and director of the Goldwater Institute’s Center for Constitutional Litigation, doesn’t anticipate a breakthrough anytime soon. “I do not believe that, under current law, Catholic schools may explicitly operate as charter schools. By the same token, they may not be discriminated against as operators of charter schools, so long as they do not impart religion,” noted Bolick. “[T]hat is the law as it stands now.”
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The shuttering of Catholic schools provokes more antagonism than sympathy for local prelates. No wonder few bishops move beyond a posture of damage control to engage the faithful in a passionate debate on the best way to save Catholic schools, or build new structures that will transmit the faith. Part of the problem may be that this kind of conversation is especially difficult when there is so little certainty about what it means to be Catholic.
The CARA survey used to provide context for the CCC schools’ difficulties does not mention an additional problem that has plagued the parochial system nationwide: the creeping secularization of traditionally Catholic communities — documented by studies that mark a decline both in Mass attendance, knowledge of basic doctrine, and adherence to Catholic moral teaching. This cultural trend not only shapes parental decisions on school choice, it also has infected the parochial schools themselves. Thus, when Catholics dispute the need to support their parish school, they may be expressing doubts about the integrity of the school itself. The Catholic homeschooling movement has emerged as one response to the problem.
The schools are worthy of support first and foremost because of what they teach. If they cannot or will not fulfill their primary mission, then they should close. Archbishop Wuerl has identified religious formation as a key priority, and he may be planning to strengthen religious instruction in his schools. At the archdiocese’s recent “Convocation for Catholic Education,” topics ranged from religious formation to the importance of increasing respect for the Church’s educational mission. At that same meeting, however, the archbishop returned to bottom-line issues, hinting at the possibility of tuition increases that reflect actual, per-student costs. Privately, pastors question whether most families could absorb tuition hikes, and there is a fear that the archbishop is paving the way for further school consolidations — not only in downtown Washington, but in the suburbs as well. Archdiocesan spokeswoman Susan Gibbs denies that any such plan is in the works. But the archbishop’s “new framework for education” is clearly in flux. Down the road, perhaps school closings will be matched with stronger, expanded CCD programs. As Gibb notes, “We have more kids in ‘religious ed’ than in Catholic schools.”
It is a time of doubt. Archbishop Wuerl will have to challenge that mindset if he wishes to bring new energy to the search for solutions. Much is at stake: Even in their weakened condition, Catholic schools serve as a primary source of religious and priestly vocations. Further, the parish school remains a palpable sign of the Church’s guardianship of the family — the “domestic church” — now under increasing attack from all quarters. CCD programs are unlikely to fill the vacuum, and that truth must not be lost amid the press of grant proposals and accountability regimes.
But it will be a struggle for Catholic educators to resist what might be the easy solution — more closings rather than transformation. “We have a responsibility to those women and men who built the schools and gave us a fabulous education,” says Weitzel-O’Neill, who vows to defend the legacy. Still, like most Catholic educators today, this superintendent of schools finds herself “grappling with that whole notion of continuous change. That cultural shift in Catholic education is hardest for those of us who have been involved with it our whole life.”

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Joan Frawley Desmond has written for the Wall Street Journal, First Things, and the National Catholic Register, among other publications.


  • Joan Frawley Desmond

    Joan Frawley Desmond has written for the Wall Street Journal, First Things, and the National Catholic Register, among other publications.

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