For 50 years, American K-12 Catholic education had been in a quiet retreat.
Thousands of schools were shuttered. Enrollment plummeted by millions. Though heroic educators and generous donors stemmed the tide in many places, even creating exemplars of what was possible, forecasts were bleak. Education journals carried articles titled, “Can Catholic Schools Be Saved?”
But thanks to an unprecedented wave of social entrepreneurialism and some innovative public policies — both fueled by philanthropy — we may be witnessing the dawn of a renaissance of Catholic K-12 education.
A 2014 Georgetown University report found that 53 percent of Catholic parents identify tuition costs as “somewhat” or “very much” a problem when deciding whether or not to enroll their children in Catholic schools. Half of the parents who ultimately enroll their children say the same thing. Eliminating this barrier is the most direct way to help more students access a high-quality Catholic-school education.
The best urban charter schools often have large waiting lists of students who would like to attend. But desks sometimes sit empty in nearby high-quality Catholic schools. Some parents feel they cannot afford to pay tuition (unaware of how much scholarship aid is now available). Organizations like Families Empowered in Houston help families on charter-school waitlists learn about and access other high-quality school options, including Catholic schools.
When parents apply to either KIPP or YES Prep charter schools in Houston — both of which are high-quality but heavily oversubscribed networks—they can check a box to have their information shared with Families Empowered. If the household ends up on a KIPP or YES Prep waitlist, Families Empowered contacts them and provides information about other available options.
This year, Families Empowered piloted an “open-seat campaign.” School leaders identify the number of available spaces in their schools, and Families Empowered reaches out to the families in its database, while simultaneously sending schools a spreadsheet containing contact information for prospective students. The schools follow up with these families directly.
Between 1999 and 2004, large philanthropic gifts helped the diocese of Memphis reopen nine closed Catholic schools. In 2010, former charter-school leader David Hill was named director of academic operations for the so-called Jubilee Schools, and he instituted changes across the network—extending the school day, strengthening school culture, putting more emphasis on attracting and retaining high-quality teachers and principals.
The schools serve the most impoverished families in the region, without public funds, and the housing-foreclosure recession forced the network to dip into its donor-provided endowment. So in October 2014, Bishop Terry Steib announced that the nine Jubilee Schools would spin off from the diocese as the Jubilee Catholic Schools Network, with Hill as president. It is intended that the network’s new independence will make fundraising easier.
Hill is now in charge of all aspects of the schools, including academics, business, and development. He reports to overseeing directors. “ The first major change since becoming an independent network has been a new school calendar and correlated change in teacher and principal compensation. Starting with the 2015-2016 school year, the Jubilee Schools will operate on a 200-day, year-round calendar.
New management organizations like the one in Memphis have exciting potential to bring not only good performance but also sustained expansion to Catholic schooling — something the old Catholic school structure has found almost impossible for generations. While largely autonomous parish-run schools will forever be an important part of K-12 Catholic schooling, we’re now seeing useful variations on that theme.
If top teachers and leaders are given support and latitude, they can fuel the resurgence of neighborhood schools that are indispensable buttresses to their communities. Two Notre Dame University priests — Tim Scully and Sean McGraw — demonstrated this by founding the Alliance for Catholic Education Teaching Fellows program. Often referred to as the “Catholic version of Teach For America,” their fellowship places highly talented college graduates into Catholic schools in underserved communities for a two-year service experience. The program has trained 2,000 Catholic-school educators since its founding. And Notre Dame has nurtured similar intensive teacher-education programs at other Catholic universities.
In Wichita, Kansas, all Catholic primary and secondary schools have been tuition-free since 2002. It began when local pastor Thomas McGread challenged his flock to donate 8 percent of their incomes so the parish could pay the Catholic high-school tuition of any local child. Wichita enrollment now stands at its highest level since 1967.
Another coalition acting to support Catholic schooling formed in March 2015 when donors like former American Express president Alfred Kelly and former PricewaterhouseCoopers CEO Samuel Di Piazza formed a new political action committee aimed at preserving New York’s Catholic schools. Catholics Count will raise $10 million to help it compete meaningfully in the state’s capital for public policies that are more friendly to Catholic education.
Also helping Catholic schools turn a corner is the spread of school-choice programs that allow at least a modest flow of public resources to follow a child when he enrolls in a Catholic (or other religious or private) school. As of 2015, 59 different school-choice funding programs existed in 29 states. Vouchers and tax credits are the commonest offerings.
The upside is large, as Catholic schools undergo a modern-day renaissance and pull two million schoolchildren, many of them with bleak options outside of their classrooms, to a brighter future.
This article is adapted from The Philanthropy Roundtable’s Catholic School Renaissance: A Wise Giver’s Guide to Strengthening a National Asset by Andy Smarick and Kelly Robson.
Andy Smarick is a partner at Bellwether Education Partners.
Kelly Robson, is a senior analyst at Bellwether Education Partners.