The Catholic school system is in crisis.  The total enrollment has decreased precipitously and the number of closed schools has far surpassed the number of new schools opened.  During this school year, by my count 15 schools have been announced closed while only two new schools are scheduled to be opened in a few years.

Certainly there are Catholic schools which are thriving.  But it’s important to understand the larger forces and trends are work in order to meet the challenges facing every Catholic school.

From my perspective, the crisis is caused by financial, cultural, socio-economic, and systemic trends.

  1. Financial
    • Schools used to a lot easier to run when there was cheap labor. The teaching orders of sisters would often work at reduced or free amounts.
    • Lay teachers command a higher salary and rightfully so.
    • Aging physical plants, higher health care and benefit costs, and the demand for more programs creates a financial burden.
    • Catholic parishes with schools have generally seen declining attendance and therefore have less money to subsidize the Catholic schools. Likewise, dioceses are facing financial crises of their own and there is less money for a safety net.
    • As tuition has grown for higher education, many families worry about saving enough for college tuition and have less money available for elementary or secondary private education.
  2.  Cultural
    • Since Watergate & Vietnam, there has been a steady erosion of faith in authority. Many parents are less likely to embrace a hierarchical, non-transparent leadership structure.
    • The sexual abuse crisis has left many people turned off by the church.
    • Catholic families are smaller.
    • Catholics are less likely to support subsidy for “other people’s children.”
    • Catholic schools (and parishes) have not kept up with the demographic growth to serve its burgeoning Hispanic population.
  3. Socio-economic
    • The decline of middle class income and purchasing power has left many working families unable to afford the rising cost of Catholic education.
    • Housing shifts have left many families living far away from traditional/current Catholic schools while there have been few new schools in the suburbs.
    • The growth (and seeming demand) demographic for Catholic schools is in the lower ends of the socio-economic spectrum.
  4. Systemic
    • Public schools are generally school systems while Catholic schools have remained a system of schools with a variety of quality, vision, and purpose.
    • Generally, Catholic elementary schools were set up under the auspices of individual pastors who often serve as de facto superintendents of their schools. This governing structure often leaves interested parents and talented supporters feeling left out of governance, direction, and planning.
    • With fewer priests, there is generally more work for the pastors and often less interest in taking on the task of promoting and administering a parish school.
    • Catholic elementary schools are generally dependent on the generosity of their local pastor and parish.
    • Traditional Catholic elementary schools were set up to serve their own parishes, not the larger community.
    • Catholic school principals have been trained (like their public school counterparts) to serve their community. The emphasis is on management, not innovation.

These forces have produced tensions in every Catholic school:

  • The need to pay competitive wages vs. the desire to keep tuition affordable
  • The need to innovate a school’s offerings vs. the desire to keep tuition affordable
  • The need to work within current systems vs. the desire to become more transparent
  • The need for more support by the larger Catholic community vs. the desire to strengthen individual community schools
  • The need for individual school autonomy vs. the desire to centralize operations
  • The need for Catholic education in the larger population vs. the desire to “serve its own”

Next week, I’ll explore ideas to address these trends and tensions.