Are Catholic schools worth it? Or should we throw in the towel?

Are Catholic schools worth it? Or should we throw in the towel? March 22, 2015

No, this is not just a rhetorical question.

At church, I listened to the pastor, in lieu of a regular homily, talk about the new “To Teach Who Christ Is” campaign.  As seems to be usual with these sorts of major fundraisers, this comes from a directive from the Archdiocese, and proceeds are split 65% to the parish, 35% to the Archdiocese for an endowment fund for schools at poor parishes.

And I thought:  is it really worth it?

Yes, I send my kids to a Catholic school (well, the younger two; the oldest is at the local public high school).  And I believe there’s a lot of good in Catholic education, and the idea that religious education, and an emphasis on “character education” is not limited to Sunday School (or whatever is experienced after school, at home); also, my oldest son, who in another school would have been a prime candidate for bullying, was instead well-treated by the other students.

But even in my upper-middle-class suburb, the school is struggling.  Up until the recession, they regularly were filled to capacity.  Now, in most grades, they’re down from three classrooms to two, which means a loss of economies of scale, for all the other expenses of a school besides the classroom teacher, such as specialized art, music, and gym teachers.

Yes, I attended a school, Lutheran (Missouri Synod) with one class per grade, and there the classroom teacher taught art and gym; music was choir, combined for 5 – 8th grades and taught by the 6th grade teacher, who was also the church organist and choir director, the librarian was a volunteer, and it was, by and large, fairly no-frills.  So it can be done — but the expectation now is that the school needs to compete with the local, quite good, public school to hold onto its student body.

And that takes a lot of effort.  It’s a lot more than parents coughing up the tuition.  It’s the volunteering, for things that in a public school, would be covered by tuition, such as after-school activities and pizza day help (of course, public schools don’t even need pizza day, because they have a full-blown cafeteria), and to raise money to fund additional spending, such as a new playground or an upgrade to technology, again, to keep pace with public schools.

Now, to be sure, public schools have PTAs, but (I believe) the amount of time, energy, and money involved is much less than the financial and time commitment of parents to Catholic schools.

And, again, is it worth it?

There’s an opportunity cost to it all.  While I know this is generalizing, there are a lot of Protestant churches that put Catholic churches to shame in terms of the involvement of their members in church activities and charitable work, and I imagine this is due to the amount of energy spent on the parish school.  Even if not — even if there’s no measurable difference in other sorts of involvement between churches with and without schools, at least in principle, if we closed the doors to the school tomorrow, it would open up quite a bit of capacity for service and financial contributions in other ways.

And there are other ways that children can experience “Catholic education” besides an 8:00 – 3:00 school day — maybe an extended after-school program, for instance.

Yes, if the local school district, which is complaining of enrollment spikes without seeming to notice they’re getting kids who, if enrollment patterns hadn’t changed, would have gone to the Catholic school, simply provided vouchers, everyone’d be better off — except that there’s no way to target the vouchers to that group of families that need the incentive to switch, without giving vouchers to every family.  And, in any case, that’s just not going to happen.  It would be nice, yes, but would require a radical change in political climate.

And that’s at a suburban school, whose financial difficulties pale in comparison to urban Catholic schools.  We’re told that these schools are beacons of hope for poor families, especially in places where the public schools are full of chaos and disorder.  But the population of Irish and Italians and Poles who built these schools, at a time when they provided an alternative to public schools which (it’s claimed) were effectively Protestant schools and unwelcoming to Catholics — that population is gone.  The Mexicans who have, in many cases, replaced them, don’t come from a local tradition of parochial schools (though to be fair, neither did their predecessors, except to the extent that the schools in those countries had a religious bent to them even if nominally secular), and the combination of the lack of low-paid nuns* to work in them and, it’s my impression, the absence of the same dedication to the school among the new immigrants as the old (in the past, attendance at the parish school was virtually mandatory, now parents may or may not elect it), leaves them dependent on outside funding in a way that wasn’t the case a century ago.

(* Yes, Catholic school teachers are paid less than their public school counterparts, but their pay is far higher than in the days of the nuns.  The Archdiocese, in fact, strives, to the limits of the resources available, to provide a wage that’s, if memory serves, maybe not equal, but perhaps 3/4s the wage of a public school teacher.  Oh, and don’t forget that our expectations of class size are far different than in the past.)

And — besides the residual whites and the new Hispanic immigrants, the other “constituency” of Catholic schools, are non-Catholic poor children, who come for the educational environment.  Now, even disregarding the problems arising with a Catholic school with a large non-Catholic population (that is, the disputes about whether teachers are “ministers” and subject to Catholic morals clauses, can be terminated for gay-marrying, etc.), it really does raise the question of to what extent Catholics should make herculean efforts to keep a parallel school system in operation as a form of charitable activity.

Once upon a time, nuns came to the United States and founded two types of institutions:  schools and hospitals.  The hospitals transformed into businesses, with very little that’s charitable left of those institutions.  And the schools?  What, really, is their future?  To give up on them is a radical step, I know, but neither is it a good idea to throw good money after bad just because we can’t conceive of a different way forward, and because of the sunk costs (financial and emotional both).

Having said all this:  I thought if I wrote this down, I’d conclude with some really insightful counter-arguments, reasons to keep pressing forward.  But I think I’ll have to take a cue from the old math and actuarial exam textbooks and say, as they do of proofs, “that’s an exercise left to the reader.”

UPDATE:  I’ve now added a more optimistic follow-up.

"Requiem æternam dona ei, DomineEt lux perpetua luceat ei:Requiescat in pace.Amen."

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