May 01, 2000 6 min read
Teachers are leaving Catholic schools for better pay in public classrooms—but with heavy hearts.

Many educators wouldn’t hesitate to make a career move that added $14,000 to their annual salaries. But Jennifer Christiansen says the decision was one of the toughest she’s ever made.

Two years ago, she left her job at St. Agnes School—a Roman Catholic school in Chicago—to teach in one of the city’s public magnet schools. Although she loved her old job—and the idea of helping St. Agnes serve its predominantly Hispanic, inner-city neighborhood—Christiansen says her $21,000 salary wasn’t nearly enough to help her start a family and buy a house. “When I went in to tell my principal I was leaving, I lost it—I was in tears,” she recalls. “Leaving St. Agnes was very hard. If the salary was different, there wouldn’t be any question; I’d still be there.”

No one knows exactly how many educators move from Catholic to public schools each year, but Christiansen’s experience is hardly unusual. The 26-year-old teacher was one of three St. Agnes teachers who made the switch from private to public education that year. In fact, one public school in the same neighborhood employs 10 former St. Agnes teachers, says Patricia Jones, the Catholic school’s principal. “I’ve been seeing that here for 18 years,” Jones says. “The average person can afford to work for us for about four years, until they start getting serious about life and have all the expenses that you then incur. I’ve pretty much accepted the fact that we’re a training ground for the public schools.”

The few studies that have examined teacher turnover in private education appear to confirm Jones’ view. A 1995 federal report on attrition rates for private schools—Catholic and non-Catholic alike—showed that a private school teacher is much more likely to switch to a public school than the other way around. A more recent study, by Richard Ingersoll, a University of Georgia sociologist, shows annual teacher turnover to be 18 percent at Cath-olic schools, versus 12 percent at public schools. His analysis does not reveal where the teachers went.

Salaries were not an issue a generation ago, when most parochial school teachers were nuns.

Salaries were not an issue a generation ago, when most parochial school teachers were nuns. The sisters worked for almost nothing, making Catholic education practically, if not literally, free for many children. But now that 90 percent of the teachers are laypeople, financing the system is much trickier: Schools that don’t increase salaries find it harder to hire and keep good teachers, while those that boost tuition to offer better pay risk losing pupils. The situation is likely to become even more dire for Catholic and other private schools as the public system aggressively recruits the estimated 2 million more teachers it will need over the next decade. In purely financial terms, the incentives are stacked heavily against the parochials. The average starting salary for a Catholic elementary school teacher with a bachelor’s degree is about $17,700, compared with $25,737 for the public school rookie. The gap widens as teachers get more experience. Nationwide, the average Catholic elementary teacher’s salary is about 55 percent that of public school teachers. To make matters worse, there are few bureaucratic barriers to transferring between the two sectors; many Catholic school systems encourage, or even require, their educators to earn state teaching licenses. “It’s like a food chain, and I’m not sure who’s behind us,” says Nora Murphy, an assistant superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of New York.

Few Catholic school teachers ever expect to earn what they could at public schools. And many say the financial sacrifices they make by staying in private schools are justified, at least in part, by intrinsic rewards—greater control over the curriculum, collegiality among staff members, and more consistent support from parents.

“I look at this job as a vocation—not as a career,” says Patty Quinn, a teacher at St. Jude Elementary School in Rockville, Maryland. “I really think that the work that I’m doing has eternal consequences, and that’s worth more than any money they could pay me.”

That’s not to say Quinn is content with her salary. With a master’s degree in education, a state license in teaching reading, and 10 years of experience, she makes $30,200 a year. Although she’d love to earn the $49,000 she could get in the local public school district, she’d be happy if she simply didn’t have to scratch for the cash to cover her expenses. She’s had to work second jobs at Wal-Mart and at day-care centers to make ends meet. “I love what I do, and I choose to do it,” Quinn says. “It’s just so frustrating to pay your bills and have $50 left over to buy food and gas.”

Many Catholic school leaders are sympathetic. When Cardinal Francis George, the archbishop of Chicago, released an exhaustive study of his system’s schools in 1998, he called the salary issue the “single most troubling item in the report.” The Chicago Archdiocese, which serves the country’s largest enrollment of parochial school students, has since joined a growing list of Catholic systems examining new financing structures aimed at improving salaries. One such structure is the cost-based model, in which school officials ask parents to pay the full per-pupil cost of educating their children if they can afford it. Traditionally, Sunday offerings and church fundraising have subsidized parochial school for all students, regardless of family income. (The average, subsidized tuition for Catholic elementary school students is $1,500, while the actual cost of educating each student veers closer to $2,500.) Using the cost-based model, Annunciation parish schools in Akron, Ohio, have set a goal of paying their teachers at least three-fourths of what they could make at area public schools by fall 2004. “We came to the conclusion that if we were still going to exist in 10 years, we needed to work toward retaining our teachers and attracting new ones,” says parish pastor Paul Rosing.

A big part of selling such a plan is painting a clear picture for families of just how little their children’s teachers make. “We explain to parents how teachers sometimes don’t even have enough money to go to a movie,” says Lawrence Callahan, schools superintendent for the Washington Archdiocese, which serves five nearby Maryland counties in addition to the nation’s capital. “They’re just flabbergasted.”

While the Chicago Archdiocese is considering adopting cost-based financing for its schools, officials claim the strategy isn’t perfect.

While the Chicago Archdiocese is considering adopting cost-based financing for its schools, officials claim the strategy isn’t perfect. “My worry would be if this became a way for the parish to say, ‘We have no responsibility to the school,’ ” explains Elaine Schuster, superintendent of Chicago’s parochial school system.

Schuster’s teachers learned this winter that they would be getting a 6 percent raise. While that still puts the system’s teachers years away from achieving parity with the local public schools, officials were trying to make a point.

“Hopefully,” Schuster says, “this gives a signal to our teachers that the archdiocese does want to raise salaries.”

—Jeff Archer