Friday, July 27, 2007

Why Catholic Schools Face An Uncertain Future



For those of us who value our Catholic school education, the recent settlement the Archdiocese reached with molestation victims to the tune of 774 million dollars is a disaster for the church and may raise red flags about the future of Catholic schools as we know them. The settlement will undoubtedly force the diocese to go leaner. But what few people know is that the settlement—660 million dollars added to the 115 million already paid out—is not the only problem facing Catholic education.

Catholic schools have always done a better job of educating students. This tradition continues today. The evidence is clear in test scores and student achievement. What is even more fascinating, for much of Catholic school history, the emphasis in hiring teachers was not on credentialed candidates necessarily, but on religious and philosophically like-minded individuals. In other words, it was more important for a teacher to be a Catholic, or at least share in Catholic values and morals than to be in possession of a valid teaching credential or an advanced degree.

Through the years, the Catholic system offered a more rigorous and demanding curriculum featuring older, tried and true methods in the classroom, focusing on memorization, recitation, grammar, math, spelling and vocabulary, social studies, language and literature—the basics of a solid education. When public schools ditched older methods for newer ideas and fads, Catholic schools moved cautiously, and in many cases rejected the fads for what worked in the past.

The Catholic system also prided itself on educating students cheaply. There was little bureaucracy and red tape, less middle and upper management. The money went into the classrooms. Of course this was mostly due to the fact that the church system was pioneered by nuns who did not draw a full salary, lived in a convent, and did not need a huge benefit package or a 401k.

At the end of the 1960s, as vocations to the religious orders declined, schools were forced to hire lay people, mostly recent college graduates who either from their own experiences wanted specifically the Catholic system, or who knew the pitfalls of the public sector and chose the church school for its streamlined approach with better disciplined students. These lay teachers required full salaries, but were often hired below market value, and in the beginning, medical, dental and retirement benefits were limited.

In 1987 when I started teaching, a first year teacher’s salary was 15,000 dollars per year. In the public school, a teacher averaged almost double that amount. Medical benefits at my first Catholic school consisted of a trust fund: everyone paid in so much a month, and then drew out what was needed for medical expenses. There was the possibility that the money would run out. Public school teachers had a union, full medical and dental benefits, and a credit union.

I chose the Catholic school system because I was educated in it. I could bear witness to the fact that the new theories and methodologies coming out of the education schools did not make for better teaching. The nuns who educated me worked from solid methods used for decades. I have always modeled my classroom and teaching after my Catholic school teachers’ ways and means, and I have never had a problem adapting to changing classroom climates and student personalities.

More and more, lay teachers took up positions in the schools, even becoming principals and administrators. Salary demands grew exponentially. Tuition at Catholic schools has always been low, ensuring that all economic levels of students could attend. Catholicism is not the religion of the rich, as most Catholics are immigrants, and working class people. Whereas, with nuns the tuition demands could remain modest because salaries were miniscule, as more lay teachers took over, tuition had to rise to cover costs.

In addition to the financial burden of rising salaries and costs, Catholic schools are notorious for giving large families tuition breaks. This has become problematic with the rising costs. Many schools have had to charge the full freight to every student, leaving many poorer families to resort to the local public school.

Parents now must be actively involved in raising money for their schools. Carnivals and festivals are annual events designed to raise funds for schools. Alumni and development offices now dot campuses, staffed with people whose sole job is to raise money and increase endowment funds. In parish schools, this is a difficult task. Parishioners are already giving to support the church each Sunday. Financing the school is a separate area requiring its own annual giving. Many Catholic families cannot donate to both entities.

The current salary scale used by the diocese schools leaves much to be desired. Top candidates will go elsewhere. The church, hoping to lure more credentialed teachers, will see them trickle away to public and independent private schools who can pay more. A veteran teacher with a mortgage and a family cannot survive on a Catholic school salary.

The scandal involving the priests and molestation victims will impact schools, at minimum, indirectly. Cardinal Roger Mahony has already put a plan in motion to sell off church-owned land and other investment holdings to amass the 250 million in cash the church needs for its portion of the settlements. Insurance carriers and religious orders will pick up the difference. But this black mark on the church’s reputation has cost the organization followers. Many are unwilling to give to an organization that dodged and weaved to avoid responsibility in these cases. So church attendance has declined. Fewer parishioners means fewer students and less money donated to the schools. Across the country, Catholic schools have suffered enrollment declines that are unprecedented. In many dioceses, schools and even parishes have been shuttered. Teachers who might have chosen the Catholic system will now think twice.

Independent Catholic schools run by religious orders or a Board of Trustees and not connected to a specific parish have fared better in the crisis. Many have a more liberal philosophy, and therefore enroll students from other faiths. They offer a rigorous program, but the schools are self-contained and are not part of a diocese system.

In this way, Catholic schools may survive. They must, for the most part, become independent private schools. They will employ mainly lay teachers and administrators, be more accepting of non-Catholic students, and deploy staffs of people in the development office to reach out to alumni and the business community for sponsorship and donations, accumulating rich, well-invested endowment funds to insure funding and solvency for decades to come Aggressive fundraising may save the day, and in private, independent Catholic schools, it is much easier to promote distance from parish scandals. Many independent private schools now hire credentialed teachers and strive to pay them more competitive salaries with a solid benefits package.

The Catholic schools of yesteryear are a thing of the past. No more nuns patrolling the aisles of large classes of eager learners. It is much more expensive to educate students now, and even the public sector has felt the crunch. It is a shame though, because even as I cringe at each new molestation allegation, and feel a deep embarrassment for the reprehensible conduct of Cardinal Mahony, I know that I received an excellent education for thirteen formative years inside those classrooms with the black-clad, habited nuns and dedicated lay teachers of my childhood. Too bad such a successful enterprise, responsible for the education of millions of students, should be destroyed in a toxic cloud of deception and criminal perversion.