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The state of parochial education

By Gail Friedman

In September 2003, half of the nation's dioceses opened at least one school without a principal. Of the principals that were in place, the majority had lay backgrounds, with limited training in Catholic leadership. In fact, 95 percent of teachers in Catholic schools today come from the ranks of the laity—compared with 1960, when 90 percent belonged to religious orders.

At a symposium called "The Future of Catholic Schools: Survival and Models of Transformation," these and other sobering statistics were shared by an official from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Glenn Anne McPhee, OP, the bishops' secretary for education; and by Dale McDonald, PBVM, director of public policy and educational research for the National Catholic Educational Association, an advocacy group of Catholic educators. Taking place in Gasson 100 on March 18, the symposium happened to convene days after local headlines announced possible parish consolidations and school closings in the Boston archdiocese. Also on the panel was William Davis, OSFS, whose brief as the USCCB's deputy secretary for schools includes governmental relations and public policy. The event was sponsored by the Church in the 21st Century initiative and the Lynch School of Education.

In 1960, roughly the heyday of Catholic education in America, there were 10,501 elementary and 2,392 secondary schools educating more than 5 million children in the Catholic faith, according to McDonald. Today those numbers have fallen to 6,727 elementary and 1,228 secondary schools, serving 2.5 million—half the number of students. But not all schools are suffering: More than a third, primarily suburban schools, have waiting lists, and since 1985 more than 450 new Catholic schools have formed. Many of these were in response to population migrations; others were established specifically to serve children at risk. "Some older buildings still are serviceable and usable, but we don't have the Catholic population there. Where we do have the Catholic population, we don't have the schools," McDonald said later, in a phone interview. "We have to figure out how to match supply and demand."

Keeping Catholic schools affordable will be one key to their survival, said McDonald. Catholic elementary tuition today averages $2,178, compared with an average per pupil cost of $3,505, while secondary schools take in an average of $4,289 per student, well below the $5,571 cost of educating each child. But even a modest tuition hike can drive some families away. "An extra $300 for two kids can put them over the edge," McDonald observed.

Meanwhile, tight budgets explain the under-market salaries that make attracting and keeping talented teachers and administrators difficult, said the USCCB's McPhee. Beyond the obvious advantages of stable staffing, she said, "this is a social justice issue. . . . What are we going to do to secure appropriate salaries and benefits?"

Respondent James Miller '90, a trustee of the Catholic Schools Foundation, a Boston philanthropy that provides grants and scholarships, likened underpaid Catholic school faculty to "domestic missionaries," but he too warned against the impulse to raise tuition. "The only way forward is to find a new way of consolidating our budgets," he said. After the symposium, in a phone interview, he described a Washington, D.C., model in which parish schools operate separately but are administered by a central office. He also pointed to cities that have adopted "twinning," pairing financially stable schools with poor inner-city partners.

From a Washington lobbyist's perspective, Fr. Davis pointed up the need for Catholic schools to go after the federal dollars to which they are entitled. He offered a pamphlet produced by the USCCB detailing how private schools can benefit from the No Child Left Behind legislation signed into law by President George W. Bush in January 2002. "Every school should have the material to know how to get federal money," Davis said. But the process, he warned, can be time-consuming. "It's arduous to count poor and special education children, but you need to," he said. "If you don't identify any children, there's no money; it all goes to the public school system."

Boston College assistant professor of education Janice Jackson was the symposium's other respondent. She pointed out that, despite the statistics and solutions put forward, little had been said about what makes Catholic education appealing. As a former deputy superintendent of Boston's public schools who had held teaching and administrative positions in Milwaukee's Catholic schools, she described how the Catholic school environment had let her "live my values every day" and had continued to exert an influence after she left for the public sector.

Jackson lamented that some Catholic schools have uncertified teachers and ambiguous curricula. "When people send their kids to Catholic schools, particularly in poor areas," she said later, "there's often not a clear curriculum in place. It isn't enough to have an orderly environment. The first job is making sure students have solid academic achievement."

Renewed focus on academic quality may be crucial to revitalizing enrollment. "From the numbers Dale McDonald put on the board, clearly this is in decline," said Miller. "You have to start going back to principles about why this is important, what we're trying to accomplish. Clearly the institutions should be profoundly Catholic, but if you take Catholicism seriously, that means a commitment to excellence."


Gail Friedman is a writer based in the Boston area.


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