Over the last 50 years, thousands of Catholic schools have closed, most in low-income urban neighborhoods. Many of the remaining schools struggle with maintaining enrollment, attracting and retaining top-tier educators, and making financial ends meet. Because these challenges are the result of long-term shifts in city demographics, societal conditions, and urban K‒12 public policies, it would seem that there is little that Catholic-school leaders can do to stem the tide. The forecast has been bleak.
But over the last decade or so, some corners of Catholic education—a field long wedded to traditional ways—have embraced a series of innovative reforms. New approaches to instruction, governance, and technology, combined with the utilization of burgeoning public-voucher and tax-credit programs, are helping to revitalize the sector. Although much remains true to form, Catholic primary and secondary schooling is also exhibiting more entrepreneurialism and energy than it has in decades while at the same time preserving its commitment to the religious formation of boys and girls.
This unexpected blend of old and new is at the heart of what may become the renaissance of Catholic K‒12 education in America.
A Half-Century Losing Streak
For decades now, top scholars, including James Coleman and Anthony Bryk, have described what is sometimes called the “Catholic-school effect.” These schools appear to have an unusual ability to close achievement gaps and enable disadvantaged students to reach higher levels of accomplishment. Although the research is mixed on Catholic schools’ influence on test scores, their students are more likely to graduate from high school, attend college, earn higher wages, and engage in pro-social behaviors like voting and volunteerism. This is especially true for low-income and minority students (see “Schools of Choice,” features, Spring 2016).
Studies have suggested that this is at least partly attributable to the ability of Catholic K‒12 to create a particular (and positive) school culture. The hypothesis has been that Catholic schools’ nurturing but no-excuses environment emanates from their educators’ shared belief that they have a moral duty to help every single child. This in turn shapes the behavior of and relationships among teachers, administrators, students, and families. This could be the reason why recent research by Margaret F. Brinig and Nicole Stelle Garnett finds that urban Catholic schools may positively influence social capital in the neighborhoods in which they are located.
But despite such success, Catholic K‒12 has been on a half-century losing streak. At its mid-1960s peak, the sector educated 5.6 million students in approximately 13,000 schools nationwide. (By way of comparison, in 2013‒14 the entire state of California had about 10,000 public schools.) Today, fewer than 2 million students attend just 6,500 Catholic schools in this country. The closures have hit urban neighborhoods the hardest: Since 2005 alone, nearly one-quarter of the elementary schools located in the nation’s 12 largest urban dioceses have closed.
Many factors have contributed to this steep decline: in the 1960s and 1970s, white middle-class families fled to the suburbs, taking with them tuition dollars and tithes and leaving behind poorer, primarily non-Catholic populations. The dramatic expansion of charter schools in urban areas has provided families with tuition-free alternatives to district schools, making it difficult for tuition-dependent Catholic schools to compete. The nation as a whole has become increasingly secular and less anti-Catholic, meaning fewer families feel compelled to place their kids in a Catholic educational setting. Tragic scandals have also rocked the Catholic Church, creating distrust among families and financial burdens for parishes and dioceses. Fewer individuals are choosing religious vocations, causing schools to hire more expensive lay staff.
When put together, these changes have made the traditional Catholic-school model financially unsustainable. Some would even say the combined influence of these factors is so overwhelming that a Catholic-schools comeback is now in the realm of miracles.
But it’s also the case that when Catholic-school advocates tally the forces that have conspired against them, they ought to put a mirror at the end of the list. Often resting on their laurels and obstinately seeing constancy as virtue, this sector has been change-resistant to a fault. Even public policy—notoriously glacial—responded to the decades of urban-district failure by creating chartering, recovery school districts, mayoral takeovers, and much more.
But the Church proved more ossified: the organization, management, staffing, funding, and governance of urban Catholic schools was nearly identical when Catholic schools took off in the 1890s, ascended in the early 20th century, and collapsed in the century’s second half. Even on a seemingly tactical matter—becoming more welcoming to America’s exploding Hispanic population—Catholic schools made too little progress for too long. Today, while Hispanics make up 40 percent of all U.S. Catholics, only 3 percent of school-age Hispanic children are enrolled in Catholic schools.
It is telling that the 1990s and 2000s saw a proliferation of civil-society activity associated more with urban public education than with urban private education. A vast array of nonprofit organizations came of age to support public school innovation: Teach For America, TNTP, dozens of high-performing charter school networks, new-school incubators, advocacy organizations, and much more. Somehow, a wave of social entrepreneurs actually saw the typically sclerotic public sector as a more promising partner than the ostensibly unencumbered, nimble Catholic schools sector. In hindsight, this stands out as a glaring unforced error by Catholic education.
It must be said, however, that many individuals and organizations dutifully supported Catholic schools in their hours of need. Philanthropists, in particular, gave generously to save countless schools from closure and provide low-income students access to otherwise unattainable schools. But it is also notable that much of this effort took for granted most of the old Catholic-school apparatus. For example, scholarship programs enabled disadvantaged kids to attend extant, financially struggling schools; new educator-preparation programs sent fresh teachers into the unchanging, aging system.
What is most noticeable and most different about the promising efforts of the last decade is that Catholic-education reformers are now taking a different tack. Like many of the most encouraging public-school reforms, these efforts have been organic and highly decentralized. There’s not been a national Catholic-schools strategic plan or even grand, sophisticated initiatives emanating from diocesan central offices. Instead, individual church and school leaders, local philanthropists, and a range of social entrepreneurs have developed and grown innovative and (by Catholic-school standards) radical approaches.
The common thread running through all of these efforts is, perhaps ironically, captured by the Reformation ethos of “preserving the faith while reforming the Church.” That is, you can remain faithful to timeless principles while recognizing that manmade institutions are fallible and require rethinking from time to time.
This generation of Catholic-school reformers is absolutely loyal to authentic Catholic education; they have no interest in secularizing it. But they have shown an enviable openness to altering nonessential practices. They are fully committed to ensuring a brighter future for Catholic education, but these are by no means your father’s, grandfather’s, or great-grandfather’s Catholic schools.
Developing School Consortia
Among the most prevalent of the new-wave reforms are school consortia. They are being used to mitigate the downsides of parochial schools’ traditional island-like status. For generations, most Catholic schools have been highly independent, each the charge of an individual parish. In a consortium, a small group of schools team up to meet common needs and capitalize on economies of scale. For those familiar with chartering, consortia might be thought of as proto-networks, somewhere between a standalone charter and a charter management organization (CMO).
In fact, sometimes consortia are fairly loose and informal, as when geographically similar schools come together to hire a common transportation service or procure supplies collectively. In other cases, consortia are more tightly managed. In Milwaukee, for example, the deans of the city’s five Catholic universities obtained a start-up grant from a local foundation to launch the Greater Milwaukee Catholic Education Consortium (GMCEC). GMCEC now provides wide-ranging support to Milwaukee’s K‒12 Catholic schools. It marshals academic resources on behalf of the schools and enables the schools to tap into the expertise of the universities to solve a variety of problems. It functions, in some ways, like a consulting firm for the city’s Catholic schools, providing professional development for teachers and principals; bolstering fundraising, marketing, and public relations efforts; and strengthening management. It also provides schools with resources, expertise, and staff capacity as new needs arise. GMEC holds large workshops to bring teachers and leaders together across schools, and also offers schools individualized, onsite support.
In Los Angeles, the Catholic School Consortium brings together two dozen campuses, providing resources, support, and guidance as they work to solve common challenges. The consortium was originally formed by a local philanthropy, the Specialty Family Foundation, to help schools strengthen their development and marketing activities. The scope of its work has since expanded. Nine of the consortium’s schools were struggling to manage their finances, so they jointly engaged an accounting firm to manage each school’s books.
Even when a consortium’s formal joint activities are few, it can still be of significant benefit to its educators. Given their independent nature, Catholic schools often lack the kind of professional support and camaraderie that can be found in school networks and districts. Consortia can create learning communities for educators to engage with other like-minded professionals and share resources. In Washington, D.C., for instance, the Consortium of Catholic Academies enables educator collaboration across four low-income schools. This sense of community is especially important since there are now fewer than a dozen Catholic elementary schools remaining in the nation’s capital, and these four schools gamely remained Catholic in 2007 when seven other inner-city D.C. schools converted to charter status. A Minneapolis-based consortium, the Catholic Schools Center of Excellence, got its start when a local foundation gathered principals from the region’s Catholic schools and found that the educators had never met most others in the room.
Innovating with Technology
Catholic-education innovators are also introducing technology into these historically traditional schools. Tech is seen as both a cost-saving tool and a means for providing greater resources to students, including advanced coursework and remedial supports. While the upfront costs of these changes can prove prohibitive for financially strapped schools, reformers are finding workarounds and starting to produce impressive learning gains.
Seton Education Partners, co-founded in 2009 by a former Teach For America alum and a former KIPP executive, has helped a number of Catholic schools adopt and implement high-quality blended-learning programs. Now partnering with eight schools in six cities and educating more than 2,000 students, Seton’s program has enabled its schools to see both reduced per-pupil costs and strong academic results. At Mission Dolores Academy in San Francisco, Seton’s program helped decrease per-pupil costs by a third. Network-wide, Seton’s students—nearly all of whom are minority, and more than two-thirds of whom qualify for free or reduced-priced meals—had academic growth 1.5 times faster than the national average in math and 1.4 times faster in reading.
The academic and financial success of Seton’s Mission Dolores School inspired leaders in the nearby Diocese of San Jose. In 2013, the diocese created its St. Katharine Drexel School Initiative to bring blended learning to seven of its elementary schools. Students attending Drexel Initiative schools rotate in small groups between online instruction and face-to-face teaching. The blend of learning modalities helps maintain student engagement and provides students with differentiated instruction. To support teachers as they learn to incorporate technology into their classrooms and use data to inform their instruction, the diocese has partnered with nearby Santa Clara University. The university provides coursework, professional development, and ongoing support to Drexel Initiative staff members.
Technology has also enabled entrepreneurs to create a Catholic approach to “micro-schooling,” very small schools that typical integrate elements of online learning, home schooling, and private education. In some cases, students attend “school” only a few days per week, studying from home on the other days. One such “school” is Parish.Academy. It relies heavily on technology and is designed to operate schools of 40-160 students at a cost of only $3,850 per pupil. The platform is flexible; leaders can use it to develop a full-time classroom program or a hybrid model that pairs classroom time with home-based learning. The model is both new and evolving—it is a product of the nationally recognized 4.0 Schools incubator—so its future course is promising but still uncertain.
An important similarity between Catholic schools’ development of consortia and adoption of technology is that both approaches can help reduce schools’ operating costs. Expenses like accounting and food services can be shared across schools, and costs such as those associated with excessed positions can be eliminated entirely. Freed-up resources can then be used in ways that might increase enrollment, for instance, by adding new course offerings or afterschool programs. More students means more tuition, which can facilitate long-term financial sustainability.
However, the cost-savings from technology and consortia may be too small to save many schools. Even more importantly, both strategies also leave in place the basic operations and governance model of Catholic schooling. That is, they work within the century-old framework of largely autonomous, parish-based schools. Those arrangements (and the countless visible and invisible practices that accompany them) may be at the root of the sector’s ongoing problems. The public school analogue is the deeply troubled traditional urban district. For decades, reformers tried to improve its functioning through countless strategies. But to this day, there is not a single high-performing urban district in this country. It wasn’t until reformers created nondistrict charter-school sectors—a space for public education outside of the traditional system—that we saw a proliferation of high-performing high-poverty schools.
Private School Management Organizations
Perhaps what’s needed is an entirely new approach to organizing and governing Catholic schools. And that’s precisely what’s happening with the nascent field of “private school management organizations.” Also known as PSMOs, these nonprofit organizations are central offices that run two or more schools—the private-school equivalents of CMOs.
Traditionally, each church pastor has led and administered his parish school, hiring the principal, managing student enrollment, maintaining the facility, ensuring that ends meet, and more. But with so many challenges facing urban Catholic education and so many nonschool responsibilities already borne by the pastor, this job became untenable.
The PSMO approach generally preserves the pastor’s obligation to spiritually develop students and staff, but most other day-to-day school-management functions are moved into a new administrative office. The PSMO, generally governed and operated by the laity, is then able to centralize duties across a range of schools. It not only achieves economies of scale, it can also offer new resources and educational expertise.
Though this field is still new, most Catholic PSMOs (non-Catholic PSMOs are emerging as well) share several important features. Each takes control of a set of existing schools in a single city, maintains a close relationship with the local diocese, and focuses primarily on establishing long-term financial sustainability for existing schools rather than opening new ones.
Examples include Partnership Schools in New York City; the Catholic Partnership Schools in Camden, New Jersey; and Independence Mission Schools and Faith in the Future in Philadelphia. These nonprofits were started in part thanks to local philanthropists looking for a new way to support inner-city Catholic schools. They are striving to improve the academic, financial, operational, and governance performance of the schools they oversee.
At the start, each organization worked closely with its local diocese to craft an agreement detailing the new authorities and obligations of each party. Though the specifics can vary, in general these contracts cede responsibility for the day-to-day operations of the schools to the PSMO. That body then uses its power to improve fundraising, the recruitment and hiring of educators, the implementation of curriculum and tests, and the management of enrollment.
Though this structure is currently the most common, the PSMO family continues to diversify. Different locations and different organizations are piloting different approaches. The Jubilee Schools network in Memphis, for example, is innovating in at least two ways. First, it is embedded inside the Diocese of Memphis rather than functioning as a separate 501(c)(3). Second, the first six schools in Jubilee’s portfolio had all been closed, some for decades: Jubilee was designed to reopen them. Since then, it has opened one new school and taken over the operations of two existing schools.
The Cristo Rey Network is probably the most well known PSMO. It currently includes 30 schools in 19 states and the District of Columbia. While it is probably most famous for its innovative work-study component, it is just as noteworthy for its operations and governance model. With the exception of a few of its earliest schools, Cristo Rey’s schools are all new-starts. A group of educators, parents, philanthropists, and other stakeholders work with a Catholic religious community to create a brand-new high school. Though the network must receive the approval of the local bishop, each Cristo Rey school operates almost entirely outside of the traditional diocesan and parish system. In this sense, Cristo Rey is creating new Catholic-education “space” just as charters created new public-education space. It is also somewhat like KIPP in that it has a national office but local leaders make most key decisions.
Beginning in the 2016-17 school year, Notre Dame ACE Academies (NDAA) will operate 14 schools in five dioceses in three states. Like the more traditional PSMOs, it currently works exclusively with existing schools (though its leaders are open to the possibility of starting new schools in the future). But unlike other PSMOs, rather than taking on the operational components of its schools, NDAA works with diocesan leaders to create a new, separate “board of limited jurisdiction” to run a subset of the diocese’s schools. NDAA then works through this local board.
At this point, it appears that the expansion of innovative approaches like consortia, technology, and PSMOs will be a function of Church leaders’ willingness to part with traditional ways of governing, organizing, and operating Catholic schools. Given the sector’s half century of decline, the case for change may appear obvious. But it’s by no means guaranteed; we must bear in mind that despite a half century of urban-district struggles, many public-education advocates still oppose charter schooling.
But even if Church leaders are open to governance and operational change, inner-city Catholic schools still need financial resources to survive. Though the above approaches promise to improve efficiency and may even significantly improve student learning, a traditional tuition-based model is almost certainly unsound. Many if not most low-income urban families will be hard-pressed to pay thousands per year for even inspiring Catholic schools when tuition-free charters are available.
This is exactly why the recent national proliferation of private-school choice programs is such an important part of the still-developing narrative of a Catholic-schools rebound. While philanthropic giving has been indispensable to the recent wave of innovations, it is unsustainable. Like all seed funding, these private dollars can help support the incubation and early life of ventures, but a reliable stream of ongoing funding is essential. Donors can’t be expected to provide thousands of dollars per pupil for millions of students every year.
Just a decade or so ago, it would have been considered a flight of fancy to imagine that public programs, like vouchers and tax credits, could support a resurgent urban Catholic-schools sector. Growth in such programs was anemic, the political battles to get them started grueling. It was years between the adoptions of voucher programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and D.C.
But that has changed. And rapidly. Today, nearly 400,000 students attend private schools through one of the nation’s 45 public-voucher or tax-credit scholarship programs. Never before have so many disadvantaged kids been able to access Catholic schools thanks to public financial aid. In fact, publicly funded private-school choice programs have become so popular that when education savings accounts and individual tax deductions and credits are added to the list, the numbers climb to 59 programs nationwide serving 1.3 million students.
These programs are having a remarkably positive influence on the financial sustainability of urban Catholic schools. A diocesan leader in Pittsburgh attributed the state’s tax-credit program with shoring up a dozen of the city’s Catholic high schools. The Journal Sentinel reported that Milwaukee’s voucher program saved St. Anthony’s, a revered city school open since 1872. The Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, and others have reported on the enrollment-boosting effects of Indiana’s voucher program on Gary’s and Indianapolis’s Catholic schools.
It is worth noting that it’s not exactly clear which factors have contributed most to the explosive growth in private-school choice programs. But the top contenders all seem to suggest that the continued expansion of these programs is possible, if not likely.
Chartering has shown for 25 years that a multiplicity of school operators is consistent with public education; these programs simply add private schools to the mix. Programs in Indiana and Louisiana have shown that public accountability can be coupled with private-school choice. Tax-credit programs have proven far less politically radioactive than vouchers, though they accomplish the same objectives. Education savings accounts are enabling families to use public funds to choose not just schools but also courses and programs—an increasingly appealing option as schooling becomes disaggregated. The failure of the federal School Improvement Grant program and countless other “turnaround” initiatives is convincing policymakers that nondistrict alternatives are essential. The passage of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act empowers state leaders to think anew about better serving disadvantaged kids.
Should the growth in these public programs continue apace, Catholic-school advocates have reason to believe the last decade of innovation will blossom into something even bigger and more sustainable. Knowing reliable state funding is available down the line, social entrepreneurs have more reason to innovate, and philanthropists have more reason to invest in such start-up activities. If the cost savings of consortia and technology prove meaningful and lasting, other dioceses are sure to adopt such models. And if the new nonparish/nondiocesan space proves as fertile as chartering, PSMOs could not only proliferate like CMOs, they might also spur the creation of an ecosystem of Catholic-school support organizations. So though today’s initiatives appear to be small and discrete, in time they may amount to the leading edge of a movement.
So optimism is in order. In fact, it would be easy to say that Catholic schools have an unprecedented opportunity to revive themselves. But that would go too far. In truth, Catholic education could have seized on many previous moments—the 1972 White House report on the sector’s troubles, the 1983 call to arms of A Nation At Risk, the 1992 launch of charter schooling, the 2008 White House report on the sector’s troubles, and so on. But time and time again, Catholic education responded to changing times by remaining the same.
Today’s unusual combination of events is proving promising only because Catholic education is different this time around. Because of its willingness to evolve, and with a generation of innovators field-testing exciting new approaches, opportunity is finally being met by preparation. Thomas Jefferson—who knew something about adhering to eternal principles, transforming manmade bodies, and building for the future—probably said it best: “With the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times.”
That may prove to be the slogan of today’s budding Catholic-schools renaissance.
Kelly Robson is a senior analyst at Bellwether Education Partners. Andy Smarick is a partner at Bellwether and a distinguished visiting fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.