Panel at Teachers College Discusses Catholic Schools in Crisis
Described as a “crisis” by the White House Domestic Policy Council, especially in the poor, inner city neighborhoods where they are often an appealing safe and orderly alternative to public education, the nation’s Catholic Schools are closing at an alarming rate. The number of parochial schools in the nation peaked at over 12,000 (with five million students) in 1965. Approximately 2,000 have closed since 1990, the majority in the past eight years. In New York City, stories of school closings focus on the emotional toll, not the precipitating core issues. To explore these important issues, a panel of concerned educators and journalists met at Teachers College, Columbia University to try to understand the roots of the problem and consider “What Makes New York City Catholic Schools Worth Saving?”
To create a context and bring listeners into a functioning, but perpetually threatening to close, Catholic School (Rice), writer Patrick McCloskey read from his book “A Year at a High School in East Harlem.” He described the motivating influence of a charismatic African-American principal (the first in a Catholic high school) as a needed male role model for teen boys, the emphasis on developing self-reliance and self-respect, and the empowerment offered by demanding academic work. Expectations are high and all seniors are required to apply to college; most attend. Typical of many Catholic schools, 60-75% of Rice students are not Catholic. Pearl Rock Kane, a professor at Teachers College with experience in both public and private education and a former trustee at Rice, explained that Rice, the only high school in central Harlem at the time, stood out in the neighborhood for its neatly dressed boys and image as a “special place,” different from “the street.” Catholic schools like Rice “perform a public service,” maintained McCloskey, and should be saved. Joseph Viteritti, a professor of public policy at Hunter College, called Catholic schools “a success” and dismissed the notion that they compete with public schools, saying, “They are on a social mission and not trying to put public schools out of business.” A supporter of needs-based vouchers, Viteritti maintained that discussion about separation of church and state must acknowledge “religion is very important in minority and poor communities.”
Focusing on the problems, Samuel G. Freedman, professor of journalism at Columbia and writer for The New York Times, claimed that “Catholic education is a big, missing story” and, when covered, “avoids hard questions” such as society’s interest in seeing social justice taught and practiced, Catholic demographics, Catholic middle class giving patterns, and the complacency that came with inexpensive faculty (priests and nuns) and major financial support from archdioceses. Money is a huge problem. With shrinking numbers of Catholic clergy, parochial schools must turn to lay teachers who require competitive salaries and benefits (unions have been formed at some schools with varying degrees of success at having demands met). Catholic schools charge tuition (which does not fully cover costs and must be supplemented), putting them at a competitive disadvantage with public schools. Leadership and accountability are issues. Run in old-fashioned and often secretive ways, most dioceses do not have comprehensive business plans. Freedman noted a “mistrust of experience,” or experts. To administer properly, managers need data, but the Church shies away from transparency. Fund-raising is a challenge. Contributions cannot be expected from a mostly poor alumni base. Speakers noted the Catholic community as a whole has resources to support the schools but philanthropists expect openness and efficient leadership. Freedman sees hope in creating a culture where “endowments are made an ongoing part of being Catholic in America.” Various models of Catholic schools not dependent on dioceses are possible. Some reforms are being seen; the Archdiocese of New York is planning to call upon the business skills of parents, alums, and donors. School leadership training programs at Teachers College include instruction in areas such as finance and marketing. The College’s Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media prepares journalists to cover education with greater depth and thoughtfulness.
Announcement of the pending closing of fourteen Catholic schools in Brooklyn and Queens due to shrinking enrollments and financial problems has led to a proposal by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Bishop Nicholas A. DiMarzio to convert four of the schools into public charter schools. Because they would receive tax dollars, religious education and religious symbols would be banned from the schools. Welcomed by some as a way to preserve stability and educational choice, the proposal is seen by others as a threat to Catholic education, and it faces many legal, educational, and political challenges.#