Something precious in the lives of many deserving New Yorkers is slowly dying in Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s glittering city. The New York Catholic Archdiocese recently announced that it would close 14 schools, following on last year’s announcement by the Archdiocese of Brooklyn that it would shutter 22 of its schools in Brooklyn and Queens. Located in some of Gotham’s neediest neighborhoods, these schools have served for over a century as a haven for low-income but striving families. Many of the predominantly minority children in those closed schools will now have to attend failing public schools.
The school closings result in part from the inexorable laws of competition. No, I don’t mean that the Catholic schools have fallen behind in the areas of academic achievement or classroom productivity. Quite the contrary. Catholic schools still deliver a far bigger bang for the education buck than the public schools. For example, in last year’s state reading and math tests for 4th and 8th graders, Catholic school students scored from 7 percent to 10 percent higher than their public school counterparts. And the Catholic high school graduation rate is nearly double that of the public high schools. Moreover, Catholic schools deliver these stellar results with per-pupil expenditures remaining about a fourth of the costs of the public schools.
In a truly competitive education world—one, that is, where taxpayer money followed children to their school of choice—the Catholic school sector would be thriving financially as well as academically, prodding the public schools to do better. But with no vouchers or tuition tax credits in place, the Catholic schools are finding it harder and harder to compete financially with an insatiable public school monopoly, ever more expansive under mayoral control. The city’s Department of Education budget now tops $17 billion, or about $15,000 per pupil. This spending growth has allowed Mayor Bloomberg to raise teacher’s salaries by 33 percent. The top public school salary of $93,000 is now double that of the highest paid Catholic schoolteacher. (When I first started writing about Catholic schools ten years ago the salary gap was a “mere” 60 percent.) To try to keep teachers from leaving for the public system, the Catholic schools have had to boost salaries, too, forcing up tuition and putting the squeeze on their low-income families. According to the Brooklyn Archdiocese, average tuition in its schools has risen from $1,659 in 1992 to $3,000 in 2004. This increase has already resulted in an outflow of thousands of low-income families to the public schools.
The Catholic schools could close this gap with more private philanthropic money. Mayor Rudy Giuliani understood this need, believing that a vital Catholic school sector was good for the city. Stymied on taxpayer-funded vouchers, he sponsored a private voucher program for the Catholic schools, bankrolled by a group of New York philanthropists. But our current billionaire mayor has never said a word in support of the Catholic schools and seems to want all the philanthropic money in town to go to his own public school empire. And he and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein have been hugely successful in that venture, raising over $300 million in private funds in just three years. That’s enough money to create an endowment that would forestall all the Catholic school closings, and then some.
Catholic schools are now also at a competitive disadvantage in receiving private philanthropy. Giving to Catholic schools (and many heroic New Yorkers still do give) has always been a matter of individual conscience. Donors don’t usually get their names in the paper for their generosity. They aren’t invited to the mayor’s social events, like the luncheon that the New York Times described as a gathering of “fashionistas, artists, wealthy businessmen or . . . their wealthy wives,” who have “turned public education into a darling cause of the corporate-philanthropic-society set.” As one giddy philanthropist explained to the Times reporter, “There is a club of people in New York that support just about everything—the museums, the libraries. Now, because Michael has such a good name and is so reputable, they are able to transfer that club into the school system.”
Aside from invitations to the mayor’s best parties, members of the “club” get other perks too. They can associate their names with the administration’s highly publicized reform initiatives. For example, billionaire Eli Broad and other philanthropists won public kudos from the mayor for financing the initial planning for his massive reorganization and centralization of the school system. Now, three years later other club members are enjoying equal credit for financing the reorganization of the reorganization and for the new decentralization. Bloomberg’s philanthropists can finance the creation of lots of new small high schools and for money even get a voice in what those schools teach. They can contribute to the Leadership Academy, the most expensive principal-training institute in education history, despite its lack of any track record of success.
The one thing Mayor Bloomberg can’t give the members of his philanthropic club is any assurance that their money will have a significant educational impact. As I pointed out in City Journal (“City’s Pupils Get More Hype than Hope,” Winter 2006), one finds hardly a shred of evidence that all the additional billions in taxpayer funds and the $300 million in private donations have lifted the academic performance of the city’s students.
I wouldn’t dare tell any of the philanthropists where to put their money. Still, as successful business people, they should be able to figure out where their millions could make a real difference, and where a need exists based on hunger, not on appetite.