Future Losses: Catholic Schools on the Brink – Time to Come Home!

We have discussed in the past on this blog that Catholic Education throughout the country is in serious crisis. The Washington Archdiocese is no exception. A combination of factors are to blame for the significant numbers of closings in this Archdiocese:

  1. The Loss of Opportunity Scholarships (vouchers),
  2. The increasing cost of running schools.
  3. Aging and expensive school buildings.
  4. The necessarily higher tuition rates put schools out of range for an increasing number of families.
  5. Fewer benefactors in hard economic times means fewer scholarships.
  6. Declining birthrates in Catholic families means there are simply fewer children to fill the seats
  7. Declining numbers of active catholics means Parish budgets are shrinking and fewer Catholics have to cover the increasing costs of parish subsidies for schools.
  8. Declining number of religious vocations to staff our schools.

An article appeared in the Washington Post on Tuesday that I would like to excerpt here and include some of my own commentary in RED

  • Catholic schools look at closing
  • 14 in District and Md. with lower enrollment discuss concerns
  • By Michael Birnbaum
  • Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Pastors at 14 churches in the Washington Archdiocese have warned that their schools could close or be reconfigured if enrollments continue to decline.

The schools are split evenly between the District and Maryland, and all serve students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Not all are in immediate threat of closure. But the meetings between pastors and school parents in the past month signal a further possible retrenchment of Catholic social services in the same month that the church announced it would pull Catholic Charities out of contracts with the city if it doesn’t change a proposed bill on same-sex marriage. And in the case of the threatened D.C. schools, the archdiocese is encouraging its parishioners to get politically involved.  Not so fast here! The Church has not announced that we will pull Catholic Charities out of anything. What we HAVE indicated is that we would no longer qualify to receive city funds in the care of the poor if the current Gay Marriage Bill is passed without further religious exemption. It is the CITY which is causing this possibility not the Church. It is the Church that will be kicked to the curb in this regard. We are not threatening to do anything, we will simply be disqualified by these draconian new laws. As for the education matter we are encouraging Catholics to get politically involved so as to get the congress to revisit their decision to shut down the Opportunity Scholarship Program (vouchers). The Congress has currently chosen unions over children. It is clear that options are best for children. Returning them to a failed Public School System is wrong. We need to politically organize parents and families to convince the congress that children are more important that unions and school bureaucracies.

“These are the schools that have an urgent need for the pastors to sit down with them to discuss the financial health of the community,” said Kathy Dempsey, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese. [The archdiocese operates 96 schools in the District and Maryland and serves 28,629 students, down 2.4 percent from last year, when it closed two schools in Southern Maryland. Two years ago, it gave up control of seven D.C. schools and converted them to public charters]. We did not covert them. We rented them to a high quality Charter provider so that the legacy of our school buildings to provide quality educational alternatives, especially to the poor would be maintained. The Current Charter Operator (Center City Public Charter Schools) does a fine job providing quality, values based education to largely inner city children. Catholic Education would still be better but this is a good fall back position given the current challenges in operating faith-based Catholic Schools.  Notice that these schools closed even prior to the end of vouchers. The schools that did remain open are, for the most part very fragile and the loss of the vouchers may well be the end of them. Vouchers alone cannot keep our schools open but they can provide an important life line that is part of the necessary mix in funding sources.

Dempsey said that people at the seven D.C. schools now under threat met to discuss the futureof the D.C. voucher program, which is up for reauthorization in Congress and was closed this year to new entrants. The seven schools have high proportions of students receiving the federal vouchers, which pay up to $7,500 in tuition for low-income families. Although no formal surveys have been done, Dempsey said many families will probably pull their children out of the schools if the program were discontinued. Dempsey said the church was encouraging the school communities at the meetings “to call Congress and mobilize,” and the archdiocese has been involved in several pro-voucher protests since August.

Of the seven schools in the District, St. Augustine School in Northwest has the highest percentage of voucher students: More than half of its 180 students received vouchers this year, and it was targeted by the archdiocese for conversion into a charter school in September 2007 until community backlash forced a reversal. This is not true. St. Augustine School was never slated for conversion. It was offered a palcein the new Consortium of Catholic Academies which would have kept it open and Catholic. The Parish chose not to accept membership in the Consortium and preferred to return the school to a parish based school. The parish committed to do the fundraising necessary to keep it open and thus far has been successful. The possible loss of half its students will be a serious blow however.  Holy Redeemer School, St. Ann’s Academy, Sacred Heart School, St. Anthony, St. Francis Xavier and St. Thomas More were the other schools in the District that had meetings. Voucher students account for at least a fifth of the students at all of them, Dempsey said.

The Maryland schools are St. Hugh School in Greenbelt, St. Jerome and St. Mark in Hyattsville, St. Catherine Labouré in Wheaton, St. Jude in Rockville, St. Michael the Archangel in Silver Spring and St. Michael in Ridge, in St. Mary’s County. The future of the voucher program doesn’t affect them, but they are suffering from declines in enrollment and charitable giving. As noted above, vouchers or public funding alone cannot save our schools (unless the funding levels were much higher) but some tuition assistance to students is an essential component of helping schools to stay open.

….Schools discussed options to make their operations more sustainable, ranging from increasing enrollment through community outreach to bolstering bank accounts through fundraising, Dempsey said. She said decisions about whether schools close will be made before the January enrollment process begins.

The bottom line is that it looks like we are heading for a smaller more regionally based Catholic School system. I would also like you to consider this fact: As a Church we can no longer sustain many of our programs, schools and parishes when only 27% of Catholics go to Mass regularly and support their parishes financially. In the end this is a people problem well before it is a money problem. People bring resources with them. A  lack of people people means a lack of resources. There are other factors listed above but the bottom line is that we are losing critical mass, we are losing synergy.

If you’re a lukewarm Catholic please consider how desperately you are needed. You may expect your parish to be there for you in times of need like weddings, baptisms and funerals but please consider that the “family Church” may close not long after the family school. Missing Mass on Sunday is not just a sin against God who is due our worship. It is not just a sin against your self  who needs Holy Communion. It is also a sin against others who need your prayers, presence, talents and resources. Together we can meet the challenges of providing schools and social services. Divided and lukewarm, we are slowly shutting down.

This video is from the Dicoese of Austin TX. But you’ll get the point:

14 Replies to “Future Losses: Catholic Schools on the Brink – Time to Come Home!”

  1. Monsignor, you forgot the biggest factors — (1) a bloodsucking government that consumes more and more and more of the private economy so that, among other things, parents can no longer afford to pay both property and other taxes, and pay parochial school tuition, as well as (2) that same government (with the help of teachers’ unions) bloating the education system to such a degree that it made education more expensive all across the board, so that tuition itself is much higher as a proportion of family income than it used to be back before the 1970s or thereabouts. That is what is driving most Catholic schools out of business, not to mention the dwindling number of Catholic hospitals, which will dwindle even more with the current healthcare “reform” packages out there.

    And it just starts a vicious downward spiral because fewer Catholic schools means fewer kids being taught and inculturated in Catholicism (a once-a-week CCD class is not nearly the same), which results in fewer of these kids becoming active Catholics when they grow up, which means less financial support as well as reduced Mass attendance, which means more school closings and on and on.

    1. Well I can’t dispute your additions. Not sure I like the word bloodsucking but you are right that taxes are taking a bigger bite. Further we do have these school system with all these exprensive bells and whistles bt increasingly our kids who graduate has less mastery of basic learning. Labs are great. Learning to write and read, proper grammar etc. is even better. These upscale public schools then cause us to have to put in labs, computer upgrades etc and it is too expensive. I once suggest to the Catholic Schools Office that we ought to niche market a bit more with a back to basics curriculum rooted in the three Rs. But they said they’re marketing indicated my plan would torpedo our schools. and that further we have to meet certain criteria that a back to basics wouldn’t accomplish. Oh well.

  2. Msgr. Pope – Thank you. I went to Catholic schools most of my life and now I work at a poor Catholic school. I hope all of us who benefited from a Catholic education feel compelled to help the next generation enjoy the same blessings.

  3. My two nieces attend parochial school in Long Island and my children attend in Maryland. Tuition for both of my nieces is $5000 and they receive aid to cover 50% of that tuition. Tuition for two of my children is $12,000 each year and we receive no aid. Add to the mix that my nieces and their classmates are each given a laptop and have up-to-date technology that rivals our top Catholic high schools. Our school barely updates their website. Why such great disperity? What are we doing/not doing in the ADW?

    In Long Island, if one is Catholic, it is an expectation that families send their children to Catholic schools (they do seem to get that they are investing in the next generation). In the ADW, Catholic school has become a priviledge, and that makes me sad.

    When my eldest son was in college, I paid more for the younger children’s tuition at our parish school than for his tuition to a state university!! Next year my daughter goes to high school, and (after my son’s scholarships and grants) I am looking at spending more for my daughter to attend Catholic high school than I will pay for my son to attend his final year at Georgetown Law School. Something is seriously wrong.

    1. I have forwarded your question to the Catholic Schools Office of this Archdiocese. I too have heard that tuitions are a lot less in Northeastern dioceses of the USA. One answer I think is that a lot depends on the local public school systems and what they offer. We have to “compete” by offering something even better. The Montgomery County Public Schools (ideological questions aside) is one of the best funded and equipped public school systems in the Country. We have to compete not only with product, but also with teacher pay in order to get the best teachers. Here too Montgomery County pays very well. That’s my answer but lets see what the Cath. Schools Office has to say.

      1. Why the need to “compete” with public schools? I simply want to send my kids to a Catholic school, but I can’t imagine how I would afford it. I have a decent job, but we have two kids not yet school age (and hope to have more) and my wife stays at home. I don’t see how I can justify spending more than 10% of my income for each child on school when I am saving for a house and their college.

        You already offer something better: Christ. I don’t care if the facilities are sparkling and if the computer labs are state-of-the-art and the teachers all have state certification. I want my children to have a Catholic education, but the archdiocese doesn’t seem to realize that they are pricing people out.

  4. “Well I can’t dispute your additions. Not sure I like the word bloodsucking but you are right that taxes are taking a bigger bite.”

    Father, that is a dishonest statement. In the past ten years (mostly thanks to Mayor Williams), the DC property and income tax rates have been reduced, as have federal income tax rates. There has been no change in federal social insurance tax rates. Accuracy demands a retraction of that statement.

    This is not a matter of “well,everyone has their opinion.” Tax rates are objective numbers.

    As far as Catholics schools in DC, I will tell you as a lay Catholic without school age children, I have never once been asked by the Church to give a nickel to the Catholic schools. I contribute to three different DC Catholic schools and practically have to beg for the right to have my checks accepted. In 30 years I have never once heard an appeal from the pulpit for the school nor received a request from a priest. For the three schools I am a donor, I would give more but receive scant information from them about their activities and future plans. I don’t feel it is good stewardship to be sending more to institutions for which I have such minimal knowledge. Prior to the recent closing of inner city Catholic schools, it was announced that there would be a consultation with the lay faithful before any action was taken. That did not happen for me.

    Anyway, Xavier Unviersity in Louisiana is the beneficiary of the Washington’s Archdiocese’s disinteret in non-parent lay support for Catholic schools.

    1. Well Kurt, I don’t know if “dishonest” is a fair word. How about inaccurate? I think that is your real point. I don’t think you really mean to say I am lying. So, if my statement is inaccurate then I accept your correction. My own taxes are rather high but I do not pay property taxes since I do not own property. Bender’s choice of words was somewhat extreme and my point was to distance myself from the tone but to express sympathy for the observation that many feel taxes are high. That is another loooong debate!

      I think you are right that we have not done as well as we could in asking the Catholic faithful to contribute to Catholic Schools. Especially untapped is the large alumni base of our Catholic Schools. The High Schools and colleges do a pretty good job of engaging them but any outreach from the elementary schools is rare. That said, the fianancial needs and burdens of the Catholic Schools is so overwhelming that individual donations, even from a large number of Catholics may not be able to close the gap i many cases. It costs about 1.7 Million dollars a year to run a single track (1 class per grade) Catholic School. If tuition were $4,000 per year that would require 425 students all paying the full tuition to cover the cost, and most do not pay full tuitiuon. Most of our schools not have anywhere close to 425 students, especially in the city where student bodies are closer to 200 and a large number of them, especially in DC and PG county, cannot possibly pay even close to $4,000. The true cost per pupil, given low enrollment and high cost is about $8,000. Without having to do all the math I hope you can see that the deficits become staggering very quickly if there are not enough students paying near full tuition. Many of our schools in poorer areas were close to mid six figure deficits every year. Without large benefactors, corporate and individual, going to the folks in the pew would not raise enough to even come close.

      Thus, the emphasis over the years was to seek out large donors. You clearly see that as misguided and maybe it was. But the financial burdens of these schools are really staggering in areas where tuition alone cannot raise anything close to the actual costs. It is unlikely that parents and parishioners, particularly in the increasingly samller parishes of DC and PG County, are able to close such a gap. Hence What you call “disinterest” may deserve a less severe label. The realities are we need huge amounts that transcend what parents and parishes can reasonably be asked to give.

  5. “I don’t think you really mean to say I am lying”

    Of course not. That is why I wrote that it was the statement that was dishonest, not you or poster Bender. I can’t dispute that individuals might “feel” their taxes are high. That is a subjective question. But at least here in DC, tax rates have not increased.

    On the main point, I don’t see financing Catholic schools as hopeless. I think there are many people who if they were simply given encouragement and sufficient information so they can be assured their contributions are being well-used, the funds could be found. While in 30 years of living in the Archdiocese I have never once heard an appeal from the pulpit for support for Catholic schools, I did for the first time this year hear the priest encourage sending children to the parish school. That is a step in the right direction.

    1. I’m not sure if it is still that way, but Catholic school in Witchita, Kansas was free b/c they directly appealed to parishioners. They did something on the scale of the Archbishop’s Appeal to fund education. Granted, I know nothing about Witchita, but I would imagine they do not have the same socio-economic make-up of the ADW. Still, we need to look at the successful models in funding Catholic education. I mean, nothing changes if nothing changes.


  6. As much as one can blame lay Catholics for not supporting Catholic schools (either by sending their children there or contributing financially), I think it is also necessary that the Archdiocese share the blame for the present situation. While some schools may have benefited from their membership in the Center City Consortium, our own school suffered from its poor management. The Consortium should never have been permitted to expand when it could not support the schools which were already members. When it all fell apart, our school was returned to us in significantly worse physical condition than when we turned it over to the Consortium several years before. I’m sorry to say that, in some cases, the professional management of Catholic schools in our own Archdiocese is not up to the standard that our students deserve.

    1. One minor point to correct, the Consortium did not wish to expand, it was asked to do so and agreed reluctantly. Also, in fairness to the Consortium, they did a wonderful job in boosting the test scores of the children. The educational model was great, Building mangement was poorer, especially in some buidlings and the financial model became untenable especially after the addition of the 6 schools.

  7. I understand at least one of the affected schools in Montgomery County the decision was made by the parish that they will no longer support the school financially other than through a once a year 2nd collection and if parishioners want to support the school through two small charitable campaigns that are expected to raise more than $60K annually. The parish complains that the school is not financially viable because the parish has had to kick hundreds of thousands on an annual basis for several years. But, isn’t this the whole point of the parish school? The parish supports it financially. These schools were not supposed to be self-sustaining.

    It is a shame for the Archdiocese, the local parish, and most importantly the children attending that school that the parish no longer believes they need to support the school. This school has moved into a single class per grade model which some say that its enrollment is declining — but this was the plan ever since two more parish schools opened up in the last 6 years within the same city. And, this model of one class per grade is what surrounding schools have done just as successfully.

    A Catholic education offers much more than just preparing the future leaders of the Church and serves the community beyond its parish. It provides a good solid education and safe alternative to some of the nonsense that goes on in public schools. My take on the process the Archdiocese has gone through in the last several years is that the Archdiocese no longer wants to support Catholic elementary education for the majority of its current and future students. I truly think they want to get out of the business of doing this. Catholic education has turned from a possiblity for many to a possiblity for only the rich. If the ADW continues along this road, they are going to end up with a handful of independent schools whose students can pay full freight.

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