By Valerie Schmalz
American Catholic school enrollment has been dropping for most of three decades, and its steep slide -- losing 20 percent this decade -- has alarmed most of the Catholic education establishment.
Since 1998, Catholic school enrollment has dropped from 2.6 million to 2.2 million nationwide, the National Catholic Education Association reports. It is at less than half of the 5.6 million zenith it reached in 1965.
"The future of Catholic school education depends on the entire Catholic community embracing wholeheartedly their responsibility," said Washington, D.C., Archbishop Donald Wuerl in a statement to Our Sunday Visitor. "Passing on the faith is the task of the whole diocesan church and therefore involves every parish, not just those maintaining a school."
The biggest issue facing Catholic schools today is money. The "true cost" to educate a student is several thousand dollars more than tuition, said Dan Curtin, an administrator with the National Catholic Education Association. In this past school year, the NCEA reports that the mean elementary tuition nationwide was $3,159, while the actual per pupil cost was $5,870. At the secondary level, mean freshman tuition was $8,182, while per pupil cost was $10,228.
The challenge is finding a financial model that replicates the success of the system that worked up until the mid-1960s: parish schools staffed by Religious where the students came from the congregation, and contributions to the collection plate and modest tuitions paid the bills.
Four main areas now hold promise for funding Catholic schools: stewardship, philanthropy, work-study models and government assistance.
The most effective model of stewardship is the Wichita, Kas., diocesan school system, where no family pays tuition from kindergarten through high school, says the NCEA's Curtin.
"Wichita might be home to one of the strongest Catholic school systems in the nation, with impressive test scores, rising enrollments, supportive parishes, an authentic Catholic identity and a unique funding model," concluded the nonsectarian Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in its 2008 policy study, "Who Will Save America's Urban Catholic Schools?"
The Dayton, Ohio-based think tank says that the Wichita schools "may offer a model for how other communities could make their Catholic school system work for Catholic and non-Catholic students alike."
There are no entrance exams for the schools. Of the almost 11,000 students in Wichita Catholic schools, more than 1,300 are Spanish-speaking and over 2,300 are minority. Almost a quarter come from low-income families.
"Our main goal is to make the opportunity available to all Catholics in the diocese if they so choose to send their child to a Catholic school. Sadly, a Catholic education is only available to those who are wealthy enough to afford it, around the nation, with exceptions," said the Diocese of Wichita Director of Stewardship Father John Lanzrath.
The concept encompasses the entire Church community and all its ministries, said Father Lanzrath. While each school family is asked to sign a pledge to tithe 8 percent of their income to their parish and to attend Mass weekly, each parishioner is also asked to tithe 8 percent to the parish. Each parish gives 10 percent of its income to the diocese, and the diocese subsidizes poorer schools.
Other dioceses are experimenting with no tuition at some schools, including one in Brooklyn, N.Y., as well as some schools in Chicago, Indiana and in other parts of Kansas. No other diocese yet has tried the concept diocesanwide.
Many schools are reaching out to philanthropists -- donors or businesses who may not be Catholic but who have an interest in promoting a quality education for poor children. There are several examples of this succeeding, including in the Jubilee Schools in Memphis, Tenn.
"When I became bishop in 1993, I was shocked that our schools were closing," Memphis Bishop J. Terry Steib told the Fordham Foundation, which lauds the Jubilee Schools as a success story. "I thought -- that's not the Church's way. Catholic schools are meant to make a difference in people's lives. They are the primary vehicle for evangelization."
Today, there are eight Jubilee Schools among the 30 diocesan schools, from preschool to high school and more than 8,000 students -- a vast improvement compared with that before the Jubilee initiative, according to the Memphis Catholic diocesan schools' annual report.
Memphis Catholic schools now boast a 99 percent graduation rate, and 99 percent go on to college. Minority enrollment is 33 percent, and 37 percent of students are non-Catholic. This year, the Memphis Catholic school system received the Best Practices Award from the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management.
A key to the "Memphis Miracle" was an anonymous donor who came forward with a $10 million donation and a commitment by the Memphis business community to a fundraising foundation. With just 4 percent of the population Catholic and many of the inner-city parishes with fewer than 100 members, school superintendent Mary McDonald said, "The Catholic population did not have the resources, so I knew I had to go out into the community, because it was for the community."
The foundation is a separate entity from the parish-based schools, and the Jubilee Schools are run differently, McDonald told OSV. Each school's principal reports directly to her, and the pastors provide spiritual support for the schools. Families pay a small tuition, sometimes not more than $100.
In funding the Jubilee Schools, the diocese draws on wealthy Memphis donors, but also partners with the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) at the University of Notre Dame and thereby receives several teachers a year who are working on their master's degree; it has a similar agreement with Christian Brothers University in Memphis through its Lasallian Association of New Catholic Educators (LANCE) program, the Fordham Foundation reports.
McDonald, who spearheaded the reopening of the schools in one of the most poverty-stricken inner cities of the country, said the diocese also has created a diocesanwide scholarship fund for Catholic school students in the rest of the Memphis episcopate. "It is just as important for us to keep our Catholic children in Catholic school," she said.
Another promising endeavor is that of the Cristo Rey and Nativity Miguel networks, which are run by independent religious groups -- namely the Jesuits and Christian Brothers, but the schools have drawn other religious orders as well.
The Fordham Foundation report said, "Networks of schools run by independent religious orders demonstrate real energy and potential."
Cristo Rey Network high schools are explicitly Catholic schools that serve only economically disadvantaged students with a college preparatory curriculum in urban areas.
The school requires participation by all students in a work-study program that includes longer school days, and one day a week in a corporate setting which both provides work experience and helps pay schools costs.
In the past year, 22 schools served more than 5,000 students, according to cristoreynetwork.org. Ninety-five percent of the students are racial minorities and 99 percent of the 2008 graduates were accepted to college. A Cristo Rey school's revenue from collected tuition and paying work-study contracts covers more than 85 percent of operating cash flow, and development makes up the rest, according to the network.
The Nativity Miguel Network of Schools focuses on middle school youngsters and believes in "breaking the cycle of poverty through education." The faith-based network is composed of 64 middle schools in 27 states across the country, according to nativitymiguelschools.org.
A Nativity Miguel School is not required to be Catholic, but must be faith-based. The school offers"a financially accessible, not tuition-based education to students from low-income families in impoverished communities and reflects the faith, cultural and racial demographics of the local community," according to its mission statement. The schools have extended days, encourage family involvement and must conform to the mission.
Another option for Catholic schools is government aid via vouchers and education tax credits. Vouchers provide government-funded scholarships to low-income students to attend the school of their choice, and when the voucher program is available, a significant portion of students choose Catholic schools.
The most prominent program is in Milwaukee, which serves 14,000 students, according to a 2008 report by the Bush administration's White House Domestic Policy Council titled, "Preserving a Critical National Asset: America's Disadvantaged Students and the Crisis in Faith-based Urban School."
"Its positive impact on faith-based urban schools makes a compelling case for additional scholarship programs," the report stated, noting the program saved one school, St. Anthony, from closure, which now has tripled its enrollment -- 99 percent of whom qualify for the free and reduced-price lunch program.
In the short term, however, voucher programs are unlikely to find much traction because of strong opposition from the public school teachers' unions, most of the Democratic Party and President Barack Obama.
But the education tax credit is an idea that is gaining ground even as vouchers struggle for acceptance. Unlike vouchers, education tax credits have drawn bipartisan support said Adam Schaeffer, a policy analyst at the Cato Institute.
Unlike a deduction, which affects taxable income, an education tax credit is subtracted from the tax bill owed. Eight states already have some form of education tax credit. Credits have survived court challenges in almost every instance, according to Schaeffer. Because private schools generally cost less to run than public schools, fiscal analysis by the Cato Institute concludes the states save money.
In the 2005 pastoral statement, the U.S. bishops wrote, "It is the responsibility of the entire Catholic community . . . to continue to strive towards the goal of making our Catholic elementary and secondary schools available, accessible, and affordable to all Catholic parents and their children."
In many ways, Catholics have always risen to that challenge. During the past decade, with trademark American ingenuity, they have devised new educational models and ways of financing schools.
Much remains to be done, but the effort is worth it, says Washington, D.C., Archbishop Wuerl, whose experience in the nation's capital puts him on the front lines of preserving Catholic education for the poor and middle class.
"Catholic education in all its forms has as its primary task the communication of the person and message of Christ," he said. "In our Catholic schools, the threads of the encounter with Christ and his life-giving message are woven into the fabric of our human experience."
National Catholic Education Association: ncea.org
Cristo Rey Network: cristoreynetwork.org
Nativity Miguel Schools: nativitymiguelschools.org
Catholic Diocese of Memphis: cdom.org
Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.: adw.org
Catholic Diocese of Wichita: cdowk.org
Thomas B. Fordham Foundation: edexcellence.net
Cato Institute: cato.org
Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice: friedmanfoundation.org
Valerie Schmalz is an OSV contributing editor.