School Choice & Charters

A Strategy for Saving Catholic Schools?

By Katie Ash — January 10, 2013 2 min read
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A recent op-ed in the New York Times looks at the shrinking number of Catholic schools in the U.S. and suggests new ways of fundraising to help those schools grow and thrive.

Catholic schools have struggled for decades with declining enrollment and financials pressures, problems that have been linked to a number of causes, including middle-income families’ flight from urban areas. One additional factor could be the rise of charter schools, which often provide a similar academic model with an emphasis on character development and discipline.

The key difference, of course, is that charters are part of the public school system and are therefore free to attend, unlike Catholic schools. Charter schools—which came into being 20 years ago—are also concentrated in urban areas, which have traditionally been a stronghold of the Catholic school system.

But Catholic schools faced challenges before charter schools came onto the scene, with more than a third of them closing between 1965 and 1990, according to the New York Times article. Those closures were not the result of a lack of interest from prospective students, the article points out—about a third of Catholic schools have waiting lists—but higher operational costs and declining financial support from the church itself, forcing Catholic schools to raise tuition rates out of the reach of some potential students.

The authors of the op-ed, Patrick J. McCloskey, a project director at the Center for Catholic School Effectiveness at Loyola University Chicago, and Joseph Claude Harris, a financial analyst and author of The Cost of Catholic Parishes and Schools, suggest that Catholic schools revamp the way they are funded, through ambitious fundraisers with the help of websites such as and Kickstarter, as well as creating a way to redistribute the wealth between parishes. In fact, a study that came out last May found that financial management and marketing was the top priority, and one of the top challenges, for Catholic school principals, who said they were struggling to keep up with the many duties and challenges of operating a Catholic school.

The Catholic church could also help its financial well-being by making changes in personnel, McCloskey and Harris assert. Part of the increased cost of operating a Catholic school over the years has come from hiring laypeople as teachers, instead of relying on nuns, the number of which dropped steeply in the 1960s. In the past, a pastor and two assistant priests would cake care of the religious duties while nuns operated the parish schools, but because of the reduced number of nuns as well as priests, one pastor is typically in charge of running both the parish and the school, often without experience in the business side of those duties, the article explains. Asking deacons, whose population has reached the number of active priests and is projected to grow, to take on some of the duties now handled mostly by the pastor could be one solution to Catholic schools’ personnel challenge, the article argues.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.