BY CARDINAL TIMOTHY M. DOLAN
“Our Catholic Schools are the best thing we got going!”
With very rare exceptions, friend and foe of the Church agree: when it comes to education—grade schools, high schools, and colleges—nobody does it better than the Church!
As one of our elected representatives in Albany whispered to me, “You do twice as good a job at half the cost!” (And he still doesn’t even vote for aid to help our schools!)
In my thirteen years as your shepherd, the hardest and most upsetting decision I’ve had to make is to approve a proposal to close one of these treasures. I never want to do it again!
I need not rehearse the chorus of highest compliments our schools receive: a first-rate superior education; nearly 100% graduation from our high schools followed by 96.7% acceptance into college; a climate affirming faith, character, discipline, safety, peace, and happiness (our students actually enjoy school!); a curriculum stressing virtue not licentiousness; responsibility, not entitlement; solid, classical education, not a “cancel” or “woke” agenda; devoted, selfless principals and teachers, who put the students first; and strong parental involvement. (Contrary to what some politicians and professional educators claim, parents—the first educators of their children!—do indeed have a say in the direction of our schools); and state and national standardized test scores much higher than government schools and competitive with charters and elite private ones.
The trauma of the last two years has only enhanced the prestige of our schools, as we went back to “in-person” learning a year-and-a-half ago, and do it in a safe, healthy way. Our Catholic schools have been heralded across the nation as a model on how to operate schools. Bravo!
Despite our many successes, our acknowledged accomplishments and high parental satisfaction, a number of our cherished schools are not fully enrolled and we seem in continual struggle mode. Why? It’s complicated. Here are a few of the reasons:
For one, to administer a first-rate school is amazingly complex. The demands, governance, expectations, red tape, rules, and intrusion are strangling. To be fair, this is true of all schools—government, elite private ones, other faith-based schools, and ourselves.
That’s why, if you remember, we chose a decade-or-so ago to go with the “regional school model.” Sadly, we had to admit back then, that, with some radiant exceptions, the days of one parish being able to administer their own parochial school, with so many complexities, seem fading. I was an enthusiastic advocate of the parish school model. However, had we not gone to the regional system, I fear we would have lost even more of them!
Two, the cost of education is oppressive! Our schools do not have a blank check from the government. Even the meager assistance assured us by law is very slow in arriving, and we have to argue and advocate for every dime owed us by law. For instance, you recall last year when New York City mandated testing for Covid-19 for school children, a move we welcomed, they informed us that our children would not receive the tests! We had to take them to court—and we won!
To raise tuition to meet the financial demands of providing a top-notch education is counterproductive, since many families already struggle to afford it, and our enrollment would only decrease further. The archdiocese pumps $45 million a year into our Catholic schools, and is eager to do so, but, our budget, comprising your donations, is at its limit. Thank God for our renowned scholarship program, which helps over 9,000 children from poor and lower-middle class families enter our schools.
Three, and this is a delicate issue, our enrollment is down. True, during Covid, we experienced a welcome increase of about 3%, but even that has not been enough to correct the downturn from recent decades.
Simply put, most of our Catholic parents are choosing not to enroll their kids in our schools! Pay attention to this chilling statistic: only 25% of our Catholic children are in one of our schools! When I was in eighth grade, two-thirds of Catholic children in the nation attended one of our schools.
When we have had to make the neuralgic decision to close a school in recent years, the major reason was always the same: low enrollment! We don’t decide to close a school—the parents who don’t enroll their kids force that choice.
That’s why we need joyful ambassadors for our schools, parents and alumni who approach other parents on behalf of our schools, and proclaim the successes of our Catholic schools!
We squeeze every nickel and raise funds non-stop, because a Catholic education is expensive. But, it’s well worth every penny.
Please, we can’t be the generation that watched this “pearl of great price,” disappear!
They deserve not just to survive but to continue to flourish! You think our country, our culture, our Church have problems now! I dread to think where we’d be without the treasure of our Catholic schools. People everywhere, Catholic or not, know that, yet still do not support us or send their children to us. So, be our advocates, our messengers and emissaries. We have a wonderful story to tell – and we need your help in telling it.
We are not about to watch our schools fade away!