Catholic Schools Struggle To Maintain High Quality In the Face of Change

May 02, 1984 8 min read

Catholic schools will face severe financial difficulties in future years unless they take immediate steps to develop a broader base of financial support, according to a report released last week at the 81st annual meeting of the National Catholic Educational Association. (See Education Week, April 25, 1984.)

Related research suggests that Catholic schools have already undergone tremendous change, particularly in the area of school leadership, according to Michael Guerra, executive director of the secondary-school department at the ncea

Mr. Guerra spoke with Staff Writer Cindy Currence at last week’s conference about the need for alternative funding and the continuing change that Catholic educators expect to see in their schools during the next two decades.

QWhat do you see as the strengths of today’s Catholic schools?

AThe evidence that we have from a number of research reports indicates that the schools are doing a very good job in a number of areas. There is a broad consensus on the part of the leadership group, the teachers, and the families who commit their kids to the schools about what the purpose of the schools is; they are safe, effective, orderly environments for learning; there is an openness to collaboration between lay and religious staff members and between professional staff and parents; and there is an increasingly well-documented record of positive [academic] outcomes.

And they are doing this job with students who are broadly representative of the population, who are not selected simply from the most talented and the wealthiest but who are increasingly drawn from families of modest income and from minority families.

QWhat major challenges will Catholic educators face during the next 20 years?

AI think there are several, but basically the issue is how do we help schools continue to do a good job as staffs change and become predominantly lay staffs, as leadership changes and becomes predominantly lay? We also need to look at related questions, such as: How do we solve the resource dilemmas? How do we meet the legitimate and just needs of our faculties? How do we continue to make the schools available to students from low-income families? How do we broaden the base of support for the schools? How do we help the schools become less tuition-dependent?

There is a profound resource question and a lot of these issues are interlocking issues.

QAre there answers to the questions?

AYes. We have to broaden the base of support. We have to look at these schools as something more than schools supported by tuition. We have to significantly increase nontuition revenues. We have to look at long-range planning, more careful and professional management and accounting, development efforts, and at a broadening governance base. We need to bring people into responsible positions--leadership positions--who can help us to broaden the base of support for the schools. But if we operate simplistically, on the assumption that tuition is the only source of revenue, then there is no solution to our dilemma.

QAre schools already moving in that direction?

AThere are significant numbers of schools that have already made strong efforts in this direction. About 40 percent of the principals we surveyed said they feel very good about the things that they are doing to broaden the base of support for their school.

An equal number of principals say that they have got to do more, but the good news is that they recognize the need and are open to doing something about it.

QHow important are tuition tax credits to broadening the base of support?

ATuition tax credits to me, and I think to many in Catholic education, raise a question of justice for parents. If parents choose Catholic schools, or if they choose religiously based schools for their kids, it is not unreasonable at all to expect that the larger society would support that choice.

And I think some surveys indicate that the population at large does support tuition tax credits and vouchers and other devices that would reinforce parents’ right to choose private education for their kids.

We are not going to abandon tuition tax credits at all, but it doesn’t mean that if this legislation is not passed, we will write the end of this glorious chapter in Catholic education. We can continue to look for the broader base of support, and that means including the community and including business and civic groups in the support of Catholic education. Tuition tax credits do not represent a panacea for financial problems.

QDo you think it is within the interest of education in general to provide public support to Catholic schools?

AI think that Catholic schools, in addition to serving a unique and religious purpose, serve a broad public purpose. I think that can be measured and documented. In the Catholic secondary schools, 800,000 students are receiving an education that, in most instances, is providing a strong basis for responsible citizenship.

QWhat kinds of changes do you anticipate in Catholic education over the next two decades?

AIt seems that there are likely to be changes in the composition of the leadership, by which I mean the principal of the school. And I believe there are likely to be some changes in governance structures. In each instance, an increasing number of committed and prepared lay people are going to be exercising more and more influence in the schools.

I think the changes that are likely to take place in the curriculum are less substantive. Catholic schools have maintained a commitment to a fairly traditional academic core. That seems to have been a sensible decision, and I don’t see that core curriculum changing radically in the next 20 years.

QHow has the increasing number of laity on staffs affected the cost of Catholic education?

AThere is a shrinking source of income from contributed services--as the number of religious staff diminishes, the dollar value of contributed services diminishes.

But my hunch is that we may be well past the crunch point. Our schools are presently staffed largely by lay people and we have made the transition from 20-percent lay staffs to 75-percent lay without abandoning our commitment to serve the entire population, especially those of modest and limited incomes, and I suspect we can continue to do that.

QAside from the added financial burden, what other questions does this trend pose?

AThe leadership question is significant. How do we pass on the tradition, the trust, the religious identities of these schools from the present generation of leaders to the next generation of leaders?

QHow will Catholic leadership respond to that?

AThere will be an increasing emphasis on the role of the entire faculty in the religious mission of the school. More and more, the Catholic schools are going to perceive that they are religious institutions and that their religious purpose is a responsibility not simply of the chaplain or the campus minister, but of the entire faculty. Increasingly, the faculties are going to be asked to reflect on that, to accept that as part of their work, to come together and discuss it and pray about it, and to make concrete that which seems to be intuitively accepted by a great majority of teachers--namely, that teaching in a Catholic school is a ministry.

And the evidence already indicates that the lay teachers in the Catholic schools are extraordinarily committed and dedicated to what they are doing, that they do perceive it as a ministry. They are serving not only abstract professional goals, they are also serving the Lord in their service to kids and schools.

QThe most recent ncea research seems to indicate that while lay teachers are committed to their work, they leave profession relatively quickly, many after only three to five years of service. Why is that?

AWe don’t know this for certain, but perhaps it is because it becomes impossible beyond a certain point to maintain that commitment, given our salary structure.

It is generally agreed in the nation at large that teachers as a whole are poorly paid. There must be a major national effort to upgrade teachers’ salaries, and as members of the educational community, Catholic educators support that view.

In the long term, the question is whether we will be able to attract the next generation of teachers.

QHow do you think the “excellence movement” has affected Catholic high schools?

AI think the minority view within the Catholic community is that it has nothing to do with us, that it really has to do with public education and it focuses on concerns that are appropriate in the public sector and not appropriate in the private sector.

It is an understandable view, but I don’t think it is a wise view.

The majority view is that we are part of the larger educational enterprise, that while we are private schools and our religious purpose and uniqueness is absolutely essential to us, we are serving a public purpose and we do have a number of shared interests with other educators and we should be part of the national dialogue about excellence in education. We have things to say. We have things to contribute. Our experience can be of interest and of value to our colleagues.

However, we do need to be somewhat assertive in order to be part of that dialogue--we have not been overwhelmed with invitations to participate in it.

I have mentioned in my own communications with [Ernest L. Boyer, author of High School: A Report on Secondary Schools in America] that while we support his suggestion that service ought to be an integral part of the high-school experience, we were chagrined to see that he hadn’t taken the time to look at the experience of the Catholic community.

We have learned from our data that half of the kids in Catholic high schools across the country have been involved in some significant service activity by the time they graduate, and a very substantial number of our schools make service a requirement for graduation. It may be appropriate for other schools to make adaptions, but it is an experience that should not be ignored.

So, my view, and I think it is the majority view, is that we should be a part of this conversation and it is in everyone’s best interest that we do that.

A version of this article appeared in the May 02, 1984 edition of Education Week as Catholic Schools Struggle To Maintain High Quality In the Face of Change