ALBANY, N.Y. — A recent article in the Albany Government Law Review suggests that the emergence of charter schools — public schools not bound by the same operating procedures as conventional schools — has siphoned many students from Catholic schools, many of whom are minorities in poor, working-class neighborhoods.

This has added an additional dimension to the pressures that Catholic schools have faced in recent decades, as they have been forced to introduce sweeping changes in many U.S. dioceses to cope with the changed realities of sharply declining student populations, greatly reduced numbers of religious sisters and brothers willing and able to work in the schools, and severe financial constraints at the parish and diocese levels.

The Albany Government Law Review article, “The Collapse of Catholic School Enrollment: The Unintended Consequence of the Charter School Movement,” says Catholic school enrollment declined by 34% after charter schools were instituted in New York state. That shifts the burden on educating those students to taxpayers, who are expected to have to pay $1.07 billion more per year in New York by 2025.

“When a school becomes under-enrolled, it just really becomes unsustainable,” Timothy McNiff, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of New York, told the Register.

In the conclusion of his article about the effect of charter schools on Catholic enrollment, Abraham Lackman, a professor at Albany Law School’s Government Law Center, noted that, over the past decade, approximately 200 charter schools have opened in New York, while the same number of Catholic schools in the state have been forced to close.

“The charter school movement promised increased school choice,” Lackman stated. “In New York, however, the number of schools has not changed. One Catholic school has closed for every charter school that has opened. And there is a causal relationship at work.”


Vicious Cycle

As enrollment shrinks, Catholic schools face growing deficits and are pressured to increase tuition to cover costs, which creates a vicious cycle of pricing out parents unable to afford to send their children to Catholic schools. Some dioceses have spread the costs of running a school to multiple parishes and have attempted to create economies of scale through regionalization and sharing operations, including accounting and purchasing.

“Certainly the greatest challenge we have is the economy. Because of the economy, our schools have to charge more for tuition,” said Frederick Kalisz, the executive director at Parents Alliance for Catholic Education, a Massachusetts nonprofit that advocates for Catholic schools and parents on legislative affairs and grassroots lobbying.

“The second challenge is there are fewer people who attend church,” Kalisz told the Register. “The educational component of parish schools as a ministry in itself is very important. It not only reinforces to young people the Catholic faith, but they also take that home, and it gets them to ask questions to their parents, such as: ‘Why are we not attending Mass as a family?’”

“Catholic schools can be a very effective tool in evangelization,” Kalisz said.

Christian Brother Robert Bimonte, president of the National Catholic Educational Association, agreed.

“Not only do we teach the faith, but, for six to eight hours a day, children are immersed in a Catholic culture,” he said. “The Church really has no other vehicle like that.”

“The schools are so much an extension of the family,” McNiff added. “As custodians of the children, they are in a safe, nurturing, loving environment, where they come to learn to be productive adult citizens and come to encounter the love of Jesus Christ.”


Range of Responses

Catholic school leaders across the country have addressed their systemic fiscal difficulties in a variety of ways. The Cristo Rey Network — a collection of 25 college-preparatory high schools that serve youths in 17 states and Washington, D.C. — largely depends on revenue from a work-study program that students are required to complete.

Perhaps the fastest-growing trend to help families pay for Catholic and private schools is the subject of scholarship tax credits, a voucher-type program where businesses receive tax credits for contributing to a scholarship fund used to assist the families. Several states have implemented scholarship tax credits, including Pennsylvania, Arizona and Florida. 

The University of Notre Dame’s ACE Academies program has assumed an oversight role for Catholic elementary schools in Tucson, Ariz., and in the Tampa Bay area of Florida, where scholarship tax credits are available. 

“We’ve seen robust activity in private scholarship funds that are really leading the charge to make it possible for more families to send their kids to Catholic schools, but also to get more involved in ensuring the quality of their schools,” said Christian Dallavis, the director of Notre Dame ACE Academies (NDAA).

The NDAA program partnered with St. John the Evangelist Catholic School and two other K-8 schools in Tucson to help implement research-proven methods of classroom instruction and resource management, as well as professional development for teachers, an overhauled curriculum and new instructional equipment.

At a NDAA school, one of the first things a visitor will notice is a near return to the days when a religious community’s particular charism animated a school’s operation. At St. Ambrose School in Tucson, the organizing principle is “God Comes First.” The school’s staff organizes everything in the building to reflect that principle, from having a prayer service and a procession on the first day of school to scheduling religion class as the first period of the day. The uniform is also dressier for days when students attend Mass.

“From the teacher who opens the door in the morning to the one who shuts off the lights at the end of the day, everything in the school enforces those values,” Dallavis said.


‘Catholic Schools Can Thrive’

At Tucson’s St. John the Evangelist School, Keiran Roche, the principal, said the organizing principle is “God in All Things,” a distinct hallmark of Ignatian spirituality. The school’s teachers and staff also use common catch phrases — like “Every minute counts” and “Be doers of the word” — to reinforce the “God in All Things” ethos.

“Catholic schools, with the right government, can thrive,” said Roche, who left a teaching job in Alabama three years ago to teach in the NDAA schools in Tucson.

“Knowing the community that the schools serve — it’s a very under-served community — it was a huge factor in my decision-making to be a part of it,” Roche said, adding that the NDAA program has been a huge help for him as a first-year principal.

“The program is doing amazing things in Catholic education,” Roche said. “Research shows the Catholic school advantage for minority kids, especially with the great job of education we do in terms of our model.”

Dallavis said NDAA leads the schools through a years-long process of examining their core beliefs, discerning their shared purposes and root values, and then focusing on implementing the concrete manifestations of the school culture through operating norms and the environment. The results, Dallavis said, have been increased academic achievement and student enrollment.

“We set college and heaven as the two goals for the kids,” Dallavis said. “We really put that in front of kids, and we really see this mindset of aspiring towards great opportunities in a way that we hadn’t seen at those schools before.”


Mission Remains Vital

The mission of Catholic schools to educate the whole person remains as vital as ever, especially to the poor, urban youth who have long benefited from a Catholic education, officials said.

“From our perspective, Catholic education and identity is still paramount,” said Christopher Mominey, the new chief operating officer and secretary for Catholic education in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which is collaborating with business leaders and the wider Catholic community to revitalize Catholic education there.

Mominey left his position as the superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Syracuse, N.Y., in May to take on the job in Philadelphia, where he told the Register the archdiocese is on the cutting edge of fundamental Catholic school reform.

“In Catholic schools, the students come to know the person of Jesus Christ in a very caring and loving community where Gospel values are paramount,” Mominey said.

“And the second thing — and the record speaks for itself: It’s an excellent education,” Mominey added. “We look at our graduates, our SAT scores, our placement in colleges, and there is just no question that is the choice for parents who want to seek to have their children educated in an environment where Gospel values are at the top of the list and where academic rigor is right behind it.”

Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.