When Results Aren’t Enough: The Financial State of Urban Catholic Schools

The recent closing of the ten Jubilee Schools in Memphis has rumbled through the Catholic schools world like an earthquake.

Those who fear the worst about the future of urban Catholic education now believe they are right. Those who felt we had turned a corner were shaken free of any illusions that incremental change will be enough. Everyone has been left on edge. We know that the next few years may well be our last chance to ensure we can continue providing high-quality educational opportunities for generations of students to come.

One of the things that has been so painful about the Jubilee news is that there is no doubt that these schools are worth saving. The “Catholic School Advantage” has been proven time and again, and it’s as strong today as it has been over the past two-hundred years.

But the harsh truth is that results aren’t enough. If we want to preserve urban Catholic education—particularly in states where we are still fighting for school choice—we need not only great, faith-filled educators, but also savvy fiscal experts and business leaders who can help build sustainable institutions in a fiercely competitive environment.

We have seen a burst of entrepreneurial energy in urban Catholic schools over the past several years in places like Milwaukee’s Seton Catholic Schools, Notre Dame’s ACE Academies, Philadelphia’s Independence Mission Schools, and in New York, our own Partnership Schools network. I believe these ground-level successes will lead the way forward, both in terms of academic excellence and in terms of financial sustainability.

In New York, for instance, we have spent the past four years focused like a laser on academic turnaround. That effort generated a significant increase in student achievement that has met, and in many areas exceeded, the results of the state’s public and charter schools. We will continue to build on that foundation in the years ahead, but we must also broaden our focus to ensure the financial sustainability we know is vital to our mission.

Diversifying our funding

One essential lesson from the closing of Jubilee Schools in Memphis is the danger of becoming overly reliant on a small number of big donors. When dollars are pouring in, even if the money is coming from just a few donors, it can create complacency. But when donor weariness sets in among those few, loyal funders—particularly if they have invested millions but have not seen the changes they hoped for—financial struggles can accelerate quickly and lead to collapse. That’s why we need to leverage the generosity of our staunchest supporters to diversify that financial foundation.

To that end, Catholic educators need to embrace our role as fundraisers, and we must aggressively court new supporters for our networks, ideally well before the initial signs of weariness kick in. Just as we wouldn’t think of having a mass without a collection, we must make seeking out new supporters the norm for our work every week of the year. When possible, we must also make our alumni into brand ambassadors for Catholic schools. They can become net promoters for their own schooling experiences, personalizing the effort to sustain Catholic education.

Identifying every possible revenue source

Even with more diverse philanthropic funding streams, we have to maximize the revenue we bring in for every student to make urban Catholic schools financially sustainable. Simply put, that means we need to advocate for vouchers and tax credits and other programs—state and federal—that can help families obtain the high-quality education they want and deserve for their children.

Convincing policymakers to support programs that help students in our schools begins with being good stewards of the funding we already receive. First and foremost, Catholic schools must ensure that they are maximizing every dollar collected from parents in the form of tuition and fees.

At the Partnership, a recent analysis found that we collected fully $1 million from parents each year to cover ancillary “fees” across our six schools. These fees cover things like graduation, after-school services, field trips, and more. Of course, these activities are important and part of our culture and tradition—but they are also areas where we can benefit from economies of scale and where we can cut costs, helping us redirect some critical parent revenue back to tuition and to cover a greater portion of our core educational model.

Second, our tuition model—the same one used by parochial schools across the country—may be ripe for an overhaul. We’ve always said we can do more with less, and our tuition rates are often lower than non-Catholic schools. Does that send the message to families that they are getting a lower quality education than they might in another private school? Have we done enough to highlight the benefits of a Catholic education to ensure that families who can afford to pay tuition are, in fact, choosing Catholic schools? We need to have a broader conversation about these topics, and we need to make sure that we are sending the message that the education we provide is worth every penny—no matter whether it’s funded by tuition, scholarships, school choice or local philanthropy.

Finally, Catholic leaders need to make sure we are aware of and using federally funded compensatory education programs that provide either money or services to Catholic schools and students. Too often, bureaucratic hurdles make it difficult for principals to maximize the potential of this government funding. It’s imperative that Catholic school leaders work together to bring those dollars—which are made available to students in other schooling types—back to our classrooms.

Working together to secure economies of scale

Traditional K–8 Catholic schools were an early experiment in hyper-local control. Schools were founded and supported by the parish community, almost entirely. This worked well when urban parishes were thriving and when most Catholic families sent their children to their local parish school.

Today, the landscape looks quite different. Urban parishes often serve our nation’s most disadvantaged students, and the number of parishioners has shrunk, sometimes dramatically. Parishes alone can no longer shoulder the burden of balancing school budgets. While dioceses have stepped in to cover deficits for years, it’s not sustainable to assume they can do that forever. We’ve already identified ways to bring in additional revenue, but we also must explore what our schools can do to become more efficient operationally.

To make every dollar count, we need to embrace a new model driven by the pursuit of economies of scale. That means eliminating the duplication of services through networks of schools and a culture of cost-sharing. At Partnership Schools, we have saved thousands by bringing together a network of six schools to negotiate contracts for simple things like phone service, copiers and building maintenance. In addition, we’ve been able to share the cost of professional development and coaching support across six schools, while still being able to nimbly respond to the unique needs of a small community of schools that share similar challenges.

Finding those efficiencies means continuing to lead the way as the value-leader in American education. Just as Amazon has built an organizational culture on doing more for less and operating more efficiently than their competition, Catholic schools from the classroom level up to the central office need to continue finding new ways to serve our students while making every dollar count.

As we reflect on this moment in urban Catholic education, the Jubilee closings should not cause us to lose faith in our future; rather, we have an opportunity to work together and identify new ways—from donor relations to cost-sharing collaboration—to maintain and grow our national network of high-quality Catholic schools, especially those that serve lower-income populations in urban areas. Those are the students who most need access to schools that meet their needs academically and spiritually, and we will not let them down.

Once you start thinking about the dollars and cents of saving Catholic schools, it is amazing how many new ideas emerge. While we can’t wish away the challenges we face, we can channel our anxiety into action. By turning the new Catholic school networks we have built into laboratories that will help us discover the sustainable path forward, we can ensure that we do our part to save these vital institutions that do so much for the communities they serve and that we call home.

— Kathleen Porter-Magee

Kathleen Porter-Magee is the superintendent of Partnership Schools.

This post originally appeared on EdChoice and in a slightly different form on Flypaper.

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