In an effort to overcome the economic challenges facing Roman Catholic schools, leaders of 26 dioceses and archdioceses across the nation held a first-of-a-kind financial summit last week in Chicago.
The March 10-11 meeting, organized by the National Catholic Educational Association, comes at a time when many of the nation’s Catholic schools face declining enrollments, closures, and mergers.
Catholic school enrollment declined by about 20 percent from the 1999-2000 school year to 2009-10, according to the Arlington, Va.-based association. About 175 schools closed or were consolidated during the 2009-10 academic year; most of the decreases have been in large, urban areas in the Great Lakes region and Eastern states.
Many school leaders say dwindling Catholic school enrollment, which predates the nation’s economic downturn, has only been exacerbated by the recent recession, which led to layoffs that left many parents unable to pay tuition.
The financial challenges facing Catholic schools have also been caused by staffing trends occurring over the past 30 years, such as decreasing numbers of nuns, priests, and religious brothers who taught for small stipends.
“We have more lay teachers,” said Daniel F. Curtin, the executive director of the NCEA’s Chief Administrators of Catholic Education. He said today about 95 percent of Catholic school teachers are lay teachers who work for a salary and benefits, up from about 5 percent in 1965.
Mr. Curtin said the Chicago gathering was focused on the largest archdioceses and dioceses, with an enrollment of 20,000 students or more, because those systems are more likely to benefit from the ideas shared at the summit.
“They are the ones that are really feeling the difficulty of keeping schools going,” he said.
The summit featured speakers and leaders who have been able to rebound from financial struggles or have successfully found alternative models to finance schools.
Catholic school enrollment has increased, for example, in Chicago, which now has the largest nonpublic school system of the nation. Sister Mary Paul McCaughey, the superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Chicago, says the growth can be attributed to “hard work.” When she took over the system in 2008, she also began exploring charter school conversion, corporate tax credits, and public-private partnerships.
“We need to explore as many educational models and financial models as possible,” Sister McCaughey said.
The Archdiocese of Chicago also receives support from the Big Shoulders Fund, a nonprofit that has offered financial assistance to Chicago’s Catholic schools since the 1980s. In 2009, it partnered with the archdiocese to establish a $1 million emergency scholarship fund for Catholic school families who experienced job losses.
Jeffrey L. Hausman, the founder and executive director of the Omaha, Neb.-based Jesuit Virtual Learning Academy, said hybrid learning, in which students take some courses online and some in the classroom, can help “increase course offerings at a low cost point.”
The NCEA plans to reach other dioceses later this year and in 2012 through small events on financial planning throughout the nation.
“There are lot of good things going on in the country,” Mr. Curtin said. “We are not going to operate as we have in the past.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2011 edition of Education Week as U.S. Catholic Schools Seek Ways to Solve Financial Challenges