Though they enrolled 5.2 million students at the height of the baby boom, Catholic schools in the United States have struggled with declining matriculation in the decades since and today have just under 2 million students. This year marks a particularly striking milestone: the first time that charter schools, nationwide, will enroll more students than Catholic schools. Charters’ growing success is not without irony, since the independently run public schools have long imitated the Catholic model: high expectations, discipline, and school uniforms.
What accounts for the decline of Catholic schools and the rise of charters? In a word, competition, though it should be noted that the playing field hasn’t been level—Catholic schools (with a few exceptions) don’t receive public funds, as charters do. Nonetheless, Abe Lackman of Albany Law School analyzed New York State data and concluded that every new charter lures students away from a nearby Catholic school. According to John Eriksen, the outgoing superintendent of New Jersey’s Paterson Diocese Catholic schools, “charter schools are competition, and Catholic schools that don’t recognize that will be on the menu instead of having a seat at the table.”
For over a century, Catholic schools thrived without government dollars because they offered high-quality education and religious instruction to generations of immigrants and their children, often at low cost. Priests and nuns staffed the schools that Catholic parishioners subsidized. As American public education became increasingly captured by fads, Catholic schools stood as a refuge, offering strict academic standards and discipline.
These days, expenditures on lay teacher salaries and repair of dilapidated buildings have blown up the price tag at Catholic schools to three times the rate of inflation. In nominal dollars, per-pupil costs nearly doubled between 1998 and 2010, from $5,600 to $10,800; average tuition for incoming ninth-graders at Catholic schools more than doubled, from $4,300 to $8,800. Even as the Church subsidy has increased through financial-aid scholarships and cost-sharing, Catholic schools are becoming prohibitively expensive. Parents face a stark choice: part with a sizeable portion of their disposable income or find a cheaper alternative. Increasingly, charter schools present that alternative, offering a relatively comparable education courtesy of the taxpayer.
Yet the slow death of Catholic schools in the United States should not be abided quietly. According to the National Catholic Education Association, allowing every Catholic K–12 student to enter the public school system would add $23 billion to the taxpayers’ bill. And Catholic schools have demonstrated significant social value as a community anchor and mechanism for social mobility: they boast a sterling track record in preparing low-income and minority students for college and life success.
Fortunately, some educators and philanthropists are developing a path forward for Catholic education in the United States. First, they believe, Catholic schools should embrace the rise of charters as an opportunity, not a threat. They should borrow ideas from the best charters, just as charters once borrowed from Catholic schools. As their name suggests, charters are entrepreneurial and innovative. Many charter leaders come from business backgrounds and treat the education world as a marketplace. They regard parents, students, donors, and policymakers as consumers who expect a high-quality product at a reasonable price.
The leaders of a forward-thinking Catholic elementary school in San Francisco, Mission Dolores Academy, have brought this mindset to Catholic education. They recognize that Catholic schools must start thinking like a business, controlling budgets and adapting to consumer needs. They launched Mission Dolores with the goal of delivering individualized instruction at low cost in a Catholic setting. Borrowing its educational model from some top charter schools, Mission Dolores practices “blended learning”—a combination of online tools with classroom instruction organized around individual student needs, not regimented lesson plans.
Two blended-learning charter pioneers—Carpe Diem school in Yuma, Arizona, and Rocketship Academy, in San Jose—have seen student scores rise even as they have reduced costs. Per-pupil expenditures at Carpe Diem, a middle and high school, are about half the national average, while 94 percent of its students score “proficient” or “advanced” in state-wide math and reading exams. Rocketship Academy saves about $500,000 annually compared with similar-sized district-run schools, while its three initial campuses are top-ranked for elementary schools serving low-income students. The high scores and low overhead are even more impressive considering that both Carpe Diem and Rocketship serve disproportionately low-income, minority, and English-language learner student populations.
The blended-learning model works precisely because it demands so much from both teachers and the students. Students’ specific skills are assessed every day as they do their schoolwork on interactive computers, and lessons are tailored to fit their progress. Spending decreases in the blended-learning model, because the schools require fewer teachers to manage the classrooms. Personnel has been the main driver of rising public- and private-school costs, but blended schools can better compensate their high-performing teachers while asking them to do more teaching. At blended-learning schools like Mission Dolores, the curriculum is mastery-based—students only move on when they master the material. Teachers spend more time in direct interaction with each student or in small group lessons. Online tools collect real-time data on student performance and allow teachers to intervene with students or accelerate the pace of instruction.
Over time, grade levels become less important. Students are no longer force-fed a curriculum pitched to average comprehension levels, since each child’s curriculum is customized. The resulting educational efficiency helps close achievement gaps.
In San Francisco, Mission Dolores Academy’s first year (2011–2012) was a major success. Student test scores increased over the course of the year by 16 percent in math and 6 percent in reading, while per-pupil spending fell by 10 percent. School officials expect costs to fall by another 10 percent this coming year. Blended learning is helping Catholic education become cheaper and better, and other efforts are under way to duplicate Mission Dolores’s success. Seton Partners, the education consultancy behind the school, helped jump-start another blended-learning project with the Seattle Archdiocese’s Fulcrum Foundation. St. Therese Academy, a Catholic elementary with an overwhelmingly African-American student body in inner-city Seattle, opened its doors this fall.
Catholic schools have always had a special calling to serve the nation’s neediest students, but the failing business model of traditional Catholic schools threatens this mission. The success of charters, however, while enormously challenging, may also offer a new opportunity. Blended learning’s success in delivering academic dividends with financial efficiency could spell the future of Catholic education.