STATS ARTICLES 2009

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Making the grade in Memphis

“It’s the mission that finds the money,” McDonald said as she explained fundraising’s twofold secret. First, it’s necessary to understand that “philanthropists invest like venture capitalists by looking for leadership, infrastructure and the ability to produce human capital, which is the yield they’re seeking.”

Secondly, McDonald pursues her vocation with the same fierce devotion that animated her predecessors. “I don’t have the habit,” McDonald remarked referring to the traditional garb worn by the religious sisters who built and staffed schools and the entire network of Catholic institutions, “but I have the same passion for it.”

Today, as when she started in 1998, McDonald talks to or corresponds with every conceivable funding source to fulfill her students’ complex and deep-rooted needs. She recently succeeded in getting a grant for full-time social workers to help students deal with what she terms “poverty’s atrocities,” most notably violence and missing fathers. When McDonald’s father died several years ago, she received a note from a sixth-grader. It read: I am sorry for your father’s death. I will help you avenge your father’s death. “These kids often have no conception that a man could die from old age,” she said. “Most students have immediate family members who’ve died violently, and many have lost one or both parents. When these children come to us their dominant emotions are anger and fear.”

McDonald’s blend of professionalism and zeal is certainly instructional. But as she cautions, “our donors don’t owe us anything; their support could disappear tomorrow.” Even the best fundraiser can’t take contributions for granted, but the principle behind McDonald’s success—appealing to the entire business and philanthropic community—can be applied more widely. Appealing to the entire Catholic community, which built and supported Catholic institutions until the 1960s, has been abandoned in most dioceses. A notable exception is the Diocese of Wichita, Kansas, which supports tuition-free schools.

Twenty years ago, in response to the loss of religious teaching orders and rising costs, “stewardship” was introduced one Wichita parish at a time. “Parishioners were challenged to give their time, talent, and treasure as the spiritual way of living Christian discipleship,” said Father John Lanzrath, Wichita’s stewardship director. In the spirit of “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26), Wichita’s congregations eventually bought into donating 8 percent of their gross salaries to support all diocesan ministries. Educating the next generation academically and religiously is considered the diocese’s primary ministry. Over 70 percent of parish offertories, pay the entire cost of operating the diocese’s 39 schools, including four high schools, serving 11,000 students. As a result, Catholic families have a viable alternative to the city’s public system, which graduates only 54.5 percent of its students and has suffered a 17.6 percent drop in graduation rates from 1995 to 2005—the second worst decline in the nation.

Stewardship is not a quick fix but it is lasting. Parishes and dioceses elsewhere have adopted this approach; parochial schools in areas of Kansas and Nebraska, for example, cover about 80 percent of costs and charge only $500 to $1,000 in tuition.

From the mid-19th to mid-20th century, all Catholics were involved in funding and building the entire network of Catholic institutions. In the post-Vatican II era, the burden of paying for rising education costs shifted to families with children in the system and a few wealthy alumni. The result is the loss of half the number of Catholic schools and over 60 percent of parochial school students even as the Catholic population grew by 40 percent. Today, 7,248 (6,028 elementary and 1,220 secondary) schools remain, enrolling only 2.2 million students.

Despite the current recession, today’s parishioners as a whole are many times more affluent than their forbearers, who needed legions of unpaid priests, brothers and nuns to staff the schools. Into the 1960s, Catholics contributed 2 percent of their income on average (about the same as Protestants) to their parishes, most of which went to the schools. But as education costs increased, parishioners did not continue giving in the same proportion, even as their incomes rose at a faster pace. Today Catholics give two to five times less per family than Protestants (some experts calculate the gap from parish offertory date and others rely on surveys). Doubling Catholic contributions sounds daunting since parishes collect about $7 billion a year, but the average amount per registered Catholic family is only $300 a year. If families increased weekly giving by the price of a Starbucks cappuccino, $4 billion a year could be funneled to the most troubled schools.

Indications are that Catholics would give more. Surveys show that Catholics give high approval ratings (88 percent) to their schools. Other than in Boston, parish contributions increased during the worst years of the priest sex scandals. What’s been lacking is leadership. Many individual bishops have been strong proponents of Catholic education and fought valiantly for their schools, but the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has not made education a priority, despite the extent of the crisis. Closing the schools educating mostly poor blacks represents the loss of the Church’s most laudable and successful social justice mission. More urgently for the Church, failing to educate the current and future generations of congregants amounts to institutional suicide. Already Hispanic children represent about 40 percent of Catholic children and that proportion will grow rapidly in the coming decades, yet only 6 percent of their children attend parochial schools. Not surprisingly, a growing percentage of Hispanics are converting to Protestant denominations or raising their children without religious affiliation

Education wasn’t on the agenda at the USCCB’s general meeting last November to set the American Church’s agenda through 2011. And several months earlier, a Church official responded indifferently to a proposal from Catholic philanthropists to mount a $100 million national campaign to save parochial schools. The proposal increased to $1 billion but was discarded as the economy weakened. There are indications, however, that recent “conversions” of Catholic into charter schools have awakened the interest of many bishops to support perhaps the last attempt to save parochial education in most dioceses. Some of the most accomplished CEOs in the country have been offering their expertise in this direction for years. As McDonald and other illustrate, solutions are available.

Dioceses could adopt cost-cutting financial structures similar to municipalities and use their enormous equity to leverage building and other projects, as top bankers have advised for years. As well as fiscal problems, there are serious issues with academic quality and Catholic identity, which education experts at Catholic universities are beginning to address on behalf of beleaguered K-12 schools. Government tax credits could be accessed to construct affordable housing near schools, for example, that would create revenue streams and build community. Stronger, multi-generational families would in turn have greater ability and propensity to send their children to parochial school. 

*****

Mckay familyEarly on a Tuesday morning in October, ShirleyMcKay says goodbye to her grandson Jason as he scoots out the door on the way to his middle and high school. She’s gotten over her trepidation that Jason takes the bus instead of riding with her after dropping off Jamya and Jannaria. That would have been most practical if he attended Memphis Catholic. But Jason lobbied to attend Bishop Byrne Middle and High School since several friends chose to enroll there.

McKay rehearsed the bus trip several times with Jason so he could learn how to use the public system properly. She feared he could miss his stop and end up in a dangerous neighborhood wearing his Catholic school uniform. This might not turn into the adventure Jason was anticipating.

So far, Jason has gotten to school on time every day and enjoys his new school. Remarkably he’s making the transition to a mostly white, middle class college preparatory academy seamlessly. This would be almost inconceivable had Jason attended his local public elementary school. Few of its students score sufficiently above proficiency on the Tennessee state exams (which equates to grade level on the ITBS) to be capable of meeting the academic demands at Bishop Byrne.

Looking forward to Jason’s teen years doesn’t fill Mrs. McKay with dread anymore. It seems likely that Jason will continue through graduation and then go to college, as will every other classmate at Bishop Byrne. This would set a strong example for Jamya and Janarria, the youngest of whom will graduate high school when Mrs. McKay is in her late 60s—and can finally exhale.

Patrick J. McCloskey is the author of The Street Stops Here, a narrative non-fiction book about inner-city Catholic education, published by the University of California (Berkeley) Press in January 2009 that has received widespread praise."Anyone who questions the value of a good Catholic school education must read Patrick J. McCloskey's "The Street Stops Here.""—New York Times. McCloskey previously wrote for STATS about test scores and vouchers.

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