School Choice & Charters

Catholic Schools Ask Parents To Pay More

By Jeff Archer — March 29, 2000 9 min read

Students at Bishop Leibold Elementary School have seen their annual tuition more than double over the past six years, from less than $900 to $2,200.

Yet the actual cost of educating a child at the Roman Catholic school has increased only moderately. The big change at Bishop Leibold, a K-8 school south of Dayton, Ohio, is that parents who can afford it are being asked to shoulder more of the financial burden previously borne by church subsidies.

Local church leaders say they’re not shirking their own responsibility. Rather, they say, the move is aimed at raising enough money to provide tuition aid for those who truly need it, while also paying for improvements to facilities and raises for teachers.

“I think it’s a very Christian approach,” said the Rev. Lawrence Mierenfeld, the pastor of the school’s parish. “Those who are more greatly blessed are asked to give more.”

The strategy adopted at Bishop Leibold—called a cost-based model—is drawing increasing interest throughout Catholic education. Parochial schools in Cleveland and Washington have begun moving toward such a financial arrangement, and the Archdiocese of Detroit has asked its schools to give it serious consideration.

The approach represents a major break with the past for many Catholic schools, particularly for parish elementary schools, where tuition has traditionally been kept down for all families. Some school leaders remain wary of any change that could be viewed as evidence that the church is abandoning its stewardship.

But the trend reflects a growing consensus within Catholic education that old funding models are no longer viable.

“It’s going to happen in the next 10 years—everybody’s going to be doing it,” said Lawrence S. Callahan, the superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Washington.

“We have to ask parents to share a larger responsibility; it can’t all fall back on the church,” said Mr. Callahan, who helped pioneer the model when he ran the Catholic school system in Baltimore in the late 1980s.

A Balancing Act

Financing parochial schools was a far easier task a generation ago, when nuns made up the bulk of the nation’s Roman Catholic school teachers. Because the sisters worked for almost nothing, parochial schooling was practically, if not literally, free for children of a given parish.

But the transition to a system in which 90 percent of the teachers are laypersons has made balancing the equation much trickier: Schools that fail to raise salaries find it harder to hire and keep good teachers, while those that increase tuition to pay better salaries risk losing pupils. The problem is even harder to solve in today’s competitive labor market, with some states and public school districts luring teachers not just with higher pay, but also with signing bonuses and moving allowances.

This quandary—faced by urban and suburban parishes alike—has emerged at a time of otherwise good news for Catholic education. Nationwide, Catholic school enrollment has been gaining steadily for the past eight years, with many city schools serving large numbers of non-Catholics, and many suburban schools with waiting lists of parish children trying to get in.

Church subsidies, primarily from Sunday offerings and other fund raising, are largely how the average Catholic elementary school tuition has been kept to $1,500, while the actual per-pupil cost is closer to $2,500. In effect, all parents of parochial school pupils— regardless of their financial circumstances—have enjoyed the benefits of the subsidies by paying a lower tuition than they otherwise would.

Subsidies have been less of an issue in Catholic high schools. Many of them exist with little parish or diocesan support, and so have long tended to charge higher tuitions.

Under the approach formally known as “cost-based tuition/needs- based tuition aid,” tuition is set at or near the true cost per pupil. Families who can’t afford the fees can apply for means-tested aid, which is offset by those parents paying the full amount.

Even if only a handful of families can pay the full cost, the thinking goes, their contributions generate additional revenue for financial assistance and teachers’ salaries.

“We’re hoping to meet the human needs of our teachers, while also meeting the human needs of the families who are struggling to pay tuition,” said Sister Carol Anne Smith, the schools superintendent for the Diocese of Cleveland, which is on the leading edge of using the cost-based model.

Schooling Parents

The imperative to raise teachers’ salaries in Cleveland became clear two years ago, when the diocesan system started the school year with nearly 100 teaching positions unfilled—a record for recent years. The schools have set a goal of paying teachers at least three-fourths of what they could make at area public schools by fall 2004.

“We came to the decision that if we were going to still exist in 10 years, that we needed to work toward retaining our teachers and attracting new ones,” said the Rev. Paul J. Rosing, the pastor of Annunciation parish in Akron, Ohio.

Serving an urban, working-class community, Annunciation’s elementary school was one of the first in the Cleveland area to begin using the cost-based model.

Until recently, the parish’s school set its base tuition for everyone at about $1,100 a year, though the real cost per pupil was about twice that. This year, though, Annunciation’s parents had to request assistance if they could not afford to pay the full cost of $2,300. But the request form made clear that all parishioners could ask for as much as $1,000 in aid.

Despite concerns that the increase could lead to a major exodus of pupils, enrollment has remained relatively stable, the pastor said. Of the school’s 130 families, three agreed to pay the full fare, and 12 asked for less aid than the $1,000 offered. The additional revenue helped Father Rosing make good on his promise to give his teachers across-the-board raises of $2,000.

The key to making the approach work, its practitioners say, is educating parents about the school’s bottom line. Otherwise, the change can come as a shock to many families, who may have never realized the extent to which they’ve been benefiting from a parish subsidy. Long before it raised tuition, for example, Annunciation began explaining to parishioners what it really cost to educate their children.

“I had no idea what the cost per pupil was,” said Ed Kiser, who has two children enrolled in Annunciation School and has not asked for any tuition aid this year. “I had no idea the church was subsidizing the school as much as it was.”

Sympathy for Teachers

Bishop Leibold Elementary in Dayton, part of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, opted to phase in the cost-based model over a half-dozen years. The additional revenue it has brought in has enabled the school to raise salaries for beginning teachers from about $17,000 to $20,000, while also building six new classrooms and a computer lab. But the biggest reason for the changeover was to generate more money for tuition assistance for families who were struggling to pay the fees when they were just $900 a year, said Father Mierenfeld, the pastor.

Still, the change was hard for some families to swallow. “We had some nasty meetings,” Father Mierenfeld said. “I can remember one where it was extremely un-Christian.”

Even after implementing the cost- based approach, parish subsidies and fund raising still support about 40 percent of Bishop Leibold’s budget—down from about 50 percent under the old formula, the pastor pointed out.

“The intent has never been to drain the parish support, and it never will be,” he said. “It’s to keep it at a manageable level.”

A big part of selling such a plan, many Catholic school officials say, is painting a clear picture for families of just how little their children’s teachers make. Nationwide, the average Catholic elementary school teacher’s salary is about 55 percent that of public school teachers.

“We explain to parents how teachers sometimes don’t even have enough money to go to a movie,” said Mr. Callahan, the schools superintendent for the Washington Archdiocese, which serves five nearby Maryland counties in addition to the nation’s capital. “When you go to talking about the teachers and what they are making, they’re just flabbergasted.”

The Washington Archdiocese has decided to use a modified version of the cost-based model by having those parents who can afford it cover at least 80 percent of the full cost. The goal is to elevate teacher pay by 33 percent in the next three years, bringing beginning teachers’ salaries to $28,000.

The Archdiocese of Detroit has asked its parishes to consider the cost-based approach, along with other options, as a way to meet its goal of achieving 70 percent parity with area public school salaries.

The Wrong Message?

Despite the benefits, some Catholic school officials have concerns about the strategy.

“We are considering it, and considering it very seriously,” said Elaine M. Schuster, the superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Chicago, which oversees the country’s largest parochial school system, serving 131,000 students. “The positive is that you bring in more money. My worry would be if this became a way for the parish to say, ‘We have no responsibility to the school.’”

In fact, some parochial school leaders elsewhere are outright opposed to the cost-based plan for that very reason. They fear that it sends the wrong message by essentially shifting some of the responsibility for supporting a school from the whole parish to just those parents whose children attend school. Some also worry that, even if tuition aid is available, deserving parents may be reluctant to apply out of a combination of shame and pride.

“When you charge ‘cost’ tuition, what you’re essentially saying to Mom and Dad is: ‘You’re responsible for paying for your kids’ education,’” said Robert Voboril, the superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Wichita, Kan. “We’re saying, ‘No, it’s the whole parish’s responsibility.’”

Most of Wichita’s schools are tuition-free to parish children, but each parish also must collect enough money—through the Sunday offering and other philanthropy—to fully support its educational programs.

Even without charging tuition, Mr. Voboril said, his schools are able to pay their teachers about 90 percent of what they could earn at area public schools. The “stewardship model” has been so effective in the Kansas diocese that elsewhere it’s been dubbed the “Wichita model.”

“It does demand an awful lot of faith,” Mr. Voboril said. “It means committing to this two- or three- or four-hundred-thousand-dollar-a-year expense of a school and having faith that your parish will cover it.”

But what’s working in Wichita wouldn’t likely cut it in Akron, said Father Rosing, the pastor at Annunciation parish. It’s doubtful, he said, that the approximately 1,000 members of his urban, working-class parish—many of whom are retired—could improve upon the roughly $5,200 they together come up with each Sunday.

“I don’t see any way to expect these people to increase that,” the pastor said. “We need to be realistic that the parish is less and less able to foot the bill.”

On the underlying issue, however, proponents of both models agree: The financial formulas of the past cannot meet the needs of both teachers and parents forever.

Said Father Rosing: “We’re going to have to come up with new structures. The reality is that if we want schools, we’re going to have to pay for them.”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 29, 2000 edition of Education Week as Catholic Schools Ask Parents To Pay More


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