Needed: The Vision Thing

Rethinking the mission of Catholic primary schools

Forty years ago, as Vatican II was nearing completion, lay educator and liturgist Mary Perkins Ryan published a book that provoked a vigorous and contentious debate. The subject was not married priests or contraception but the future viability of the Catholic school system in the United States. In Are Parochial Schools the Answer?, Ryan questioned whether the U.S. Catholic Church needed to maintain a sprawling network of parochial schools that had been founded to educate and protect a persecuted minority. The system was failing in its mission to educate every Catholic student, she argued, and should be abandoned in favor of cultivating vibrant parish communities centered on the liturgical reforms of Vatican II.

Ryan’s book caused an intellectual uproar. The editors of this magazine felt compelled to editorialize on the subject and publish an essay by Ryan a year after the book was published to mark the occasion. “I found myself being called a tool of the Communists and an impractical religious visionary,” Ryan wrote. “It has all been very interesting.” But for all the attention the book received, it effected little change. In many cities and suburbs, the elementary school remains a focal point of Catholic parish life, despite a continued drop in enrollment and, most damagingly, the mass exodus of women religious from the convent and teaching jobs they traditionally held.

Today, the problems diagnosed by Ryan are more acute than ever. When her book was published, roughly 50 percent of Catholic children attended Catholic elementary schools. That number now stands at about 15 percent. Parish schools, particularly those in urban areas, have great difficulty paying the bills and keeping teachers from fleeing to better-paid jobs at public schools. (I experienced this firsthand at a Catholic elementary school in the Bronx, where I worked as a fundraiser for three years after college.) The money and energy that could be spent on an array of Catholic adult and juvenile religious educational programs are largely devoted to keeping alive a school system that is woefully under-funded.

Yet the question Ryan raised is rarely asked in educational circles anymore. Parish schools-and by this I mean the thousands of elementary schools administered by churches across the country-remain in many eyes an unalloyed good. Schools continue to be built and there is great resistance to closing those that already exist. There are good reasons for this. Parish schools provide a solid education (several studies show they have a slight advantage over public schools) and, along with high schools and colleges, they have proved to be an unusually effective way of passing on the faith. But these successes should not blind us to the problems they face.

In 1884, the U.S. bishops gathered in Baltimore and set the agenda for their educational system. The goal, they famously wrote, was “every Catholic child in a Catholic school.” That goal was never met, but that vision nonetheless drove educators well into the 1940s and 1950s. Right now, there is no such unifying vision behind the parish school system. Do these schools exist to provide an education for the minority of families who decide to send their children to Catholic schools? Are they another way to serve the poor in the inner cities? Are there other models that could reach more Catholic children? Unfortunately, these questions are not often asked, overshadowed by debates about vouchers and school choice. In view of the problems faced by elementary schools, they cannot be neglected anymore.

Ryan’s book was written at a time when many Catholics “were trying to throw off their narrow Catholic identity,” according to Daniel Callahan, a Commonweal editor at the time. Catholics were emerging from the ghetto and were suspicious of organizations, like parochial schools, that were part of that thick Catholic culture. Ryan wanted to get away from what she called a “defensive and minimal Christianity” and, for that reason, she advocated abandoning not only elementary schools, but high schools and colleges as well. “If a young person receives his whole education under Catholic auspices,” she wrote, “he suffers the disadvantages of a hothouse atmosphere almost from the cradle to maturity.”

Few educators would endorse that statement now, but Ryan’s argument about the impending crisis in parochial schools proved prescient. The school system was of course not abandoned, but its reach and influence did begin to diminish soon after her book was published. In the years following Vatican II, attendance at Catholic schools dropped precipitously. Women religious left the teaching ministry in droves; by 2002-03, 94 percent of Catholic school employees were lay. The 1960s and 1970s also saw thousands of ethnic Catholics leave the city for the suburbs. In their place came minority groups, many of whose members were not Catholic. Over a thirty-year period, the total elementary school enrollment in the top twenty dioceses in the country fell from 2,054,925 to 799,029. Attendance at Catholic schools was at its lowest in the 1980s. The school population has stabilized since then, in large part because of the growth of Catholic schools in the suburbs, where parents have been willing and able to pay the extra tuition, according to John J. Convey, provost of Catholic University and co-editor of Catholic Schools at the Crossroads: Survival and Transformation (Teachers College Press).

The vast majority of Catholic schools in this country are primary schools. (There were 6,785 in 2002-03.) Among the problems they face, two are critical. The first is securing financial stability. Except in a few cities like Cleveland where state-sponsored voucher programs exist, schools receive little in the way of public support. They receive some money from the parish, but not nearly as much as they need to operate. “The economic model of a Catholic school system supported by collections and services began to vanish in the mid-1960s,” according to researcher Joseph Claude Harris. In 1969, parishes provided about 63 percent of the funding for schools, compared to 24 percent in 2001. And the situation doesn’t promise to get any better. In urban parishes, where many students are not Catholic, pastors are often reluctant to subsidize schools. The problem is no less thorny in the suburbs, where parents who do not send their children to the parish school wonder why they must help pay for it. “People in the pew will say...‘How come there’s so much money going from the parish to support the parish school when most of the kids are in the CCD programs?’” Convey said.

With costs rising and the relative support from parishes decreasing, schools must rely on a variety of sources to keep afloat. In addition to paying tuition, parents are often asked to hold fundraisers, do lunch duty, even work as unpaid teacher’s aids-certainly not a new phenomenon in Catholic schools, but one that is increasingly relied on to make ends meet. Many schools have gone far beyond bake sales to hold sophisticated fundraisers like silent auctions. Inner-city schools rely on private foundations and alumni giving to supplement income. Catholic high schools have been doing this kind of fundraising for years, but it’s relatively new in elementary schools. When I was working in the Bronx, much of my time was spent applying for grants and organizing alumni events.

The second major problem is the hiring and retention of well-qualified teachers. Again, it comes down to money. The average starting salary for first-year Catholic elementary school teachers in 1993-94 was roughly $18,000, compared to about $33,000 for the average public school teacher. The discrepancy becomes worse the longer a teacher stays in a Catholic school. The result is that teacher turnover is high and those who do stay have less academic training than their counterparts in public schools. Catholic schools, of course, employ many talented and dedicated teachers who have a vocation to Catholic education. They believe in the Catholic school model-less bureaucracy, more discipline-but the fact is they must take a reduction in pay to work at these schools.

Despite such problems, church leaders have not wavered in their support of the educational system. A 1996 survey indicated that 97 percent of bishops agreed that “the need for Catholic schools is at least as great today as in the past.” More recently, the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education declared in The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium that “the work of the school is irreplaceable and the investment of human and material resources in the school becomes a prophetic choice.”

Why the continuing enthusiasm for Catholic schools? Three reasons. The first is that the entire Catholic school system-high schools and colleges included-has become an integral part of educational fabric of this country. In many cities and suburbs, Catholic schools are the only option outside of the local public school. In 1964, educator O’Neil C. D’Amour wrote that “with the survival of Catholic education in its traditional sense at stake, the stark and crucial issue confronting all Americans is the preservation of pluralism in education.” This remains an issue today, and many educators feel the church has a duty to provide to society-not just Catholics-an alternative to the public school system. The Catholic model-clear goals, focused curriculum-has proved to be an effective one, and several communities have publicly financed schools based in part on that model. Educators also note that the system saves taxpayers billions of dollars every year.

Second, Catholic schools have proved to be an indispensable resource for families in the inner city. Rev. Joseph O’Keefe, a professor at Boston College who for years has studied urban parochial schools, has called the education of inner-city students “one of the glorious legacies of Catholic schools in the United States.” In cities across the country, Catholic schools remained open, even when the Catholics left, providing a haven from an increasingly dysfunctional public school system. Convey said that the bishops have come to believe that the education of the urban poor is one of the church’s missions. “Cardinal Hickey said it years ago,” Michael J. Guerra, the president of the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA), told me. “‘We’re there because we’re Catholic, not because they’re Catholic.’”

The third reason behind the commitment to Catholic education is that no other institution has proved better at passing on the faith. Catholic elementary schools, high schools, and colleges have produced generation after generation of committed Catholic leaders. Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, reinforced this point in a speech to the NCEA in April 2003: “You are the key to the church’s ability to accomplish its goal to create ways to pass on the faith to the next generation.”

In sum, the purpose of Catholic schools is no longer to educate every Catholic child but to pass on the faith, educate the poor, and provide a service to society at large. The question is, given the difficulties these schools face, can they afford to do so much? It doesn’t seem likely. The church’s resources are spread too thin. The problem is particularly acute for elementary schools. Many inner-city schools are just barely surviving, and more close every year-the Archdiocese of Chicago alone has closed about one hundred schools in the last ten years, including some high schools. Suburban schools appear to be doing better, but they only serve a small slice of the Catholic population.

So what can be done? Forty years ago, Ryan proposed abolishing the school system entirely. She believed that too much money was spent on educating children, and not enough on providing formation programs for youth and adults who also require guidance in the faith. “Can we afford,” she wrote, “when the need for the religious formation of the whole Catholic people is so great, to provide a general education for all or even part of our young people?”

Ryan argued that the post-Vatican II liturgy should replace the school as the centripetal force holding the Catholic faithful together. In retrospect, her vision seems naive. Catholics have not devoted as much time and energy to the liturgy as the reformers had hoped. “It is hard to imagine searching adolescents or young adults being drawn in by this ritual,” Peter Steinfels wrote in Commonweal last year. What Ryan failed to see is that the school was uniquely suited to creating community bonds. As Ryan no doubt understood, the lives of all parents, Catholic or not, revolve around their children and the activities they participate in. The church capitalized on that, using the school to bolster the larger parish community. Yet that system only worked when a majority of families sent their children to the parish school. Families without children in parochial schools have always, to some degree, felt excluded from the larger parish community; but the problem is far worse today, now that a large majority of Catholic families send their children to public schools.

Is there an alternative? Church leaders have experimented with a number of educational models. One was “shared time,” in which students split their time between public and parochial schools. In 1964, dozens of communities in the United States were engaged in the shared-time experiment, though its success did not prove lasting. Today, church leaders seem hesitant to try anything too radical. By and large, they remain committed to the same educational model that has existed for over a century. “My general impression is that Catholic schools today are devoid of much creativity or thought,” said Andrew Greeley, who has conducted numerous surveys on the effectiveness of Catholic schools. “They’re just plugging ahead.”

Still, while many church leaders seem content with the current system, a few educators are thinking outside the box. In the concluding essay of Catholic Schools at a Crossroads, Maureen T. Hallinan suggests that maybe educators should focus on inner-city schools, since that is where Catholic education is most effective and needed: “Catholic schools in the suburbs would be closed or would set tuition at a level than would subsidize inner-city schools.” Another option, she writes, is to focus exclusively on advantaged students in hope of influencing the next generation of Catholic leaders. Neither option seems particularly desirable, but Hallinan’s larger point is well taken. The church cannot afford to staff schools for both populations, so it must begin thinking of alternatives.

One alternative is to focus exclusively on high-school-aged students. Adolescence is a natural time for intensive Catholic formation, so if resources are limited, it may make sense for the church to focus on high schools, which, some argue, play a greater role in the spiritual development of a student. Another option is to cater to ethnic communities in hope of attracting students who might not otherwise attend Catholic schools. This is what Father Michael P. Enright has tried in Chicago, where he has opened a school that offers cultural and educational activities geared to the Hispanic community.

The most intriguing alternative is in the early stages of implementation in New York, and one hopes it is adopted elsewhere. John J. Piderit, SJ, the former president of Loyola University of Chicago, has helped found two after-school programs that target Catholic students in public schools. The Catholic Enrichment Academy, as it is known, provides religious instruction and homework assistance to elementary-school students in the Bronx and in Beacon, New York. The program meets for three hours a day and is staffed by teachers trained in religious education. The goal is to provide both a much-needed service-after-school care-and a more comprehensive alternative to existing catechetical programs. The program only began last year, so its effectiveness is still unclear. But it is potentially an affordable way to reach a larger number of Catholic students. “My goal is to increase the market share without an investment in bricks and mortar,” Piderit told me.

This kind of experimentation is, unfortunately, too rare. It shouldn’t be. Finding ways to reach more Catholic students should be a top priority for church leaders. Before any experimentation can begin, though, the church must set clear and realistic goals for its school system. At a conference at Boston College last summer, George J. Henry, the superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of St. Louis, called for a Fourth Plenary Council, to determine where Catholic schools are headed. That makes sense. A vision is needed to drive planning, just as it was in 1884. That vision may differ for urban and suburban schools. The important thing is that educators ask hard questions about the effectiveness of the current system.

As it stands now, the Catholic Church cannot achieve all it has set out to do. It cannot educate the poor and pass on the faith and serve as a corrective to the public school system. “Without a significant input of funds from new sources,” Hallinan writes, “Catholic schools will continue to close.” Some hope those funds will come from vouchers. But it seems unlikely that enough states will approve of voucher programs to make a difference. Even in Cleveland, one of the few cities to adopt vouchers, the number of students who attend Catholic schools has not changed dramatically, according to the superintendent of that district. What’s more, while the Bush administration has talked about the importance of school choice, it seems unwilling to spend the kind of political capital needed to make it a reality.

Parish schools are not in danger of disappearing tomorrow, or even ten years from now. On that most experts agree. That is a good thing-these schools not only provide a solid education, they foster a communal ethic that offers a much-needed counterbalance to the larger culture’s strident individualism. Yet it seems clear that with time the influence of parish schools will wane. That is unfortunate. But perhaps things could be different if, like those educators forty years ago, we thought imaginatively about the problem. “If the energy and resourcefulness and dedication that has gone into building up our present Catholic educational institution is used to solve the new problems presented by our time,” Ryan once wrote, “these institutions may be transformed in ways as yet unforeseen and undreamed of.” 

Published in the 2004-04-09 issue: 

Maurice Timothy Reidy is a former associate editor of Commonweal.

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