WASHINGTON –– For the first time, more children are enrolled in charter schools than in Catholic schools, reported the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Va., that focuses on the role of federal government in education reform, tax reform and national security.
“Our clients are going elsewhere; we have to do something different or we’re going to close down,” said Joseph Womac, executive director of the Fulcrum Foundation, an organization providing financial help to promote and support the Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Seattle.
Womac was part of a panel discussion Oct. 16 at The Catholic University of America in Washington on “Building 21st Century Catholic Learning Communities,” which is the title of a new study by the institute.
The event included a dozen speakers representing Catholic education, Catholic organizations, inner-city schools and charter schools.
According to the National Catholic Educational Association, 1,942 Catholic schools, or 23.8 percent, have closed in the past decade. Secondary schools are doing better than elementary schools. Sean Kennedy, visiting fellow at the Lexington Institute, said current tuition rates have caused much of the enrollment decline.
Between 1998 and 2010, the average Catholic school tuition more than doubled, from $4,300 to $8,800, which is a “huge financial burden for even upper-middle-class families with multiple children to send to school,” Kennedy said. “This has led to people choosing charter schools over Catholic schools.”
According to the latest available data, Catholic school enrollment stood at 2,031,000 students for 2011-2012 and 2,056,000 for public charter schools in the United States, Kennedy told Catholic News Service later. He said the figures were based on data from NCEA, the U.S Department of Education and other sources.
Preserving Catholic schools “does not mean keeping things the same,” Womac said. “If we keep things the same, we will get the same results, and they haven’t been good.”
Panelists agreed charter schools are not the only reason for the decline in Catholic school enrollment. Changes in demographics within the church also accounts for the shift, Womac said.
“We need to talk about how we’re going to serve the next generation of Catholic immigrants,” he said, “because from a business perspective they’re half of the client base, and only 3 percent of them are choosing Catholic schools.”
A growing Hispanic population in the church has affected the demand for Catholic schools, according to John Eriksen, educational director of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management.
“You’re seeing more focus in the leadership among dioceses of Catholic schools for Catholics and the formation of the next generation of Catholics. I think in times of scarcity people are asking the question, why are we investing this money in kids and in ministries which aren’t necessarily forming the next generation of Catholics?”
Deacon Bert L’Homme, superintendent of schools for the Washington Archdiocese, said he believes “ground zero for the new evangelization is in our Catholic schools.”
“Everything we do is for the new evangelization, every goal that we have in the archdiocese is to promote the new evangelization,” he said, “and what is the major goal in the Catholic schools for the new evangelization? Increasing enrollment in our Catholic schools.”
“One of the things we’re finding more and more is that we have a reverse evangelization going on,” the deacon added. Parents are sending their children to Catholics school because they had a good Catholic experience in their past, and their children in turn evangelize them, he explained.
Panelists also discussed the concept of “blended learning,” which is the use of technology to customize each student’s learning experience combined with small-group attention from a teacher.
“Blended learning complements the Christian mission of Catholic schools,” said the Lexington Institute study. “Student-teacher interaction is actually increased under the model, as time and space are used more efficiently and effectively. Schools garner tangible data to address their specific weaknesses and to market their strengths.”
Panelist Scott Hamilton urged educators to reinvent Catholic schools.
“How many of our schools are actually Catholic?” asked Hamilton, who is co-founder of Seton Education Partners, which focuses on revitalizing urban Catholic schools. “Are they doing something that will help the kids and their families turn up at Mass on Sundays or do they hang a crucifix on the wall and call that Catholic identity?”
The Lexington study noted that “Catholic identity” is one of the four pillars Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington says are essential to Catholic education. The other three are: academic excellence, accessibility and affordability.
“If we could just differentiate our cause a little bit, we might get more of the market share,” Womac said. “We might attract people that currently aren’t interested.”
Womac encouraged educators to reach beyond the Catholic audience to receive funding from anyone who values a good education. “There are parents that would choose our school systems if we stopped talking to ourselves and try to bridge the gap between what people think about us and what we are,” he said.
The threat of charter schools to Catholic schools is not necessarily a bad thing, according to Michael Reardon, executive director of the Catholic Schools Foundation in Boston.
“The growth of charter schools, when you look back a few years from now, are going to be one of the best things that happened to Catholic schools,” he said, “because it will force us to take a look at why (Catholic) schools are worth supporting.”
Despite the overall loss of Catholic schools, Phil Robey, NCEA director of secondary education, said secondary schools are relatively stable.
“When you talk about Catholic secondary schools, between 1960 and 1970 we lost 409 Catholic schools. But between 2000 and 2011 we have only lost 16 Catholic secondary schools,” he said.
The net loss was 16, because while some high schools closed, others opened.
Robey emphasized the need for good leadership, alumni support, and examining what growing Catholic schools are doing right.