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Pressure To Increase Tuition Could Threaten Future of Catholic Schools

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Catholic schools have been successful because of their small size, their teacher policies, and their stress on values in education. But growing financial pressures are endangering the schools despite their apparent success, according to researchers who are completing a major study for the National Catholic Educational Association (ncea).

Such problems could, in fact, lead to the largest wave of Catholic-school closings since the early 1970's, the researchers predict.

A principal investigator for the nationwide study said he and other researchers based their "early impressions" on findings from the first phase of the study, which included site visits and interviews with officials from a "highly representative" sample of 26 Catholic schools. The complete findings will be presented at the annual ncea meeting in October.

Catholic schools make up 64 percent of the private-school sector, which constituted 10.9 percent of the total elementary- and secondary-school population last year.

Perhaps the greatest advantage of Catholic schools is their smaller size, said Anthony Bryk, an associate professor of education at Harvard University. The average Catholic school has an enrollment of 541 students, while the average public school has an enrollment of 752.

But because of internal pressures, the schools are entering a perilous period in which the schools might have difficulty attracting enough students to keep the schools operating, Mr. Bryk said.

"There are indications that the [wave of school closings of the late 1960's and mid-1970's] could happen again," and the remaining programs could be weakened, Mr. Bryk said.

Enrollments Stabilizing

Enrollments at Catholic schools dropped by more than 2 million students between 1965 and 1978, before stabilizing in recent years. Last year, total enrollment was 3,026,000 students.

The failure of most Catholic schools to set aside sufficient money for capital projects and pensions, combined with the increase in the number of lay teachers, could force the financially pressed schools to increase tuition beyond the reach of most families, he said.

"If [Catholic schools] have to rely on tuition to pay for school expenses, the tuition rates are going to have to increase a lot faster than inflation," Mr. Bryk said.

Because the average age of members of religious orders is increasing, the orders are not able to supply Catholic schools with as many teachers as they have in the past, thereby increasing the schools' reliance on lay teachers.

Mr. Bryk said teachers from the religious orders usually contribute from 25 percent to 60 percent of their salaries to the schools--a practice that lay teachers do not follow--so the increase in the number of lay teachers will lead to larger payrolls.

The nuns and brothers who continue to teach, he added, will not be able to contribute as much of their salaries as they have in the past, because the financial burdens of supporting older members of the order will increase.

Control Over the Curriculum

The size of Catholic schools and school districts--which are small by comparison with those of public schools--allows both principals and teachers significantly more control over the curriculum, discipline, and general operations than their public-school counterparts have, Mr. Bryk said.

"In many situations, the [public-school] principal doesn't have any say in selecting faculty members," Mr. Bryk said. "They're just told by the central office of the district, 'Here's your staff."'

Both principals and teachers also have greater flexibility in determining how courses will be taught, Mr. Bryk said.

"Because Catholic schools tightly define their academic mission, their goals can be explicit and they are able to accomplish more within their resource constraints," a preliminary report on the researchers' work stated. "Though diverse in ethnicity and social class, the student bodies in Catholic schools appear unified, cohesive, and well-socialized."

Most teachers, including the increasing ranks of lay teachers, also ''consider their work as ministry," Mr. Bryk said.

One of the parochial schools' biggest future challenges, Mr. Bryk said, will be to maintain their "Catholicity" with lay teachers who have less exposure to teachers from the religious orders. (See Education Week, June 16, 1982.)

Mr. Bryk said he was surprised to learn the crucial role that interscholastic and intramural athletics play in the everyday life of the Catholic school. "That was not on our list of themes," he said, until the researchers started analyzing the interviews and school budget figures. As much as 10 percent of a school's budget is spent on the programs. The athletic programs, he said, serve as a place for all of the people connected with the school--from principals to parents--to see each other regularly.

Tracking is necessary in Catholic schools because of their relatively open admissions policies and staffing problems, Mr. Bryk said. But smaller student populations also help Catholic schools avoid the problems normally associated with tracking, Mr. Bryk said.

Because the typical school is academically oriented and "everybody knows everybody by name," he said, "there seems to be a little less stereotyping." Students are not relegated to certain academic levels for the course of their schooling, as many public-school students appear to be, Mr. Bryk said.

Better Attitudes About Work

Partly because the parents of students pay tuition to send their children to school, both teachers and students appear to have better attitudes about their work. A pledge by parents that they will be involved in their children's schooling is often a requirement for admission, Mr. Bryk said.

Mr. Bryk also noted that an increasing number of Catholic-school students come from families in the middle- and lower-socio-economic levels--the subject of another ncea study. "These families are spending an enormous portion of their disposable income," he said. "There's no question that that improves the motivation."

The percentage of minority students in the parochial schools has grown from 10.8 percent in 1970-71 to 20.4 percent last year, according to the ncea

High Turnover Rate

The low salary scales offered Catholic-school teachers, he said, result in a high turnover rate--which means that the Catholic schools receive a constant influx of highly motivated young teachers. One-third of the schools have an annual turnover rate of 20 percent, Mr. Bryk said.

"This has not apparently hurt Catholic schools," Mr. Bryk said. "There is the positive effect of a renewed sense of commitment that comes with a new staff."

That a high turnover rate can have positive effects should be considered in the debate over merit pay in public schools, Mr. Bryk suggested. "Part of the argument [for] merit pay is based on the assumption that we need to keep teachers for long periods. That might not be what we want."

Peter Holland, a doctoral candidate in administration, planning, and social policy at Harvard University, worked with Mr. Bryk on the study.

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