Catholic schools hold opportunityIt’s a fairly grim picture for the U.S. Catholic Church these days. Church attendance among all but immigrants in the U.S. is dwindling. Dioceses are being bankrupted by the priest pedophilia scandal.
By: Bonnie Erbe, The Dickinson Press
It’s a fairly grim picture for the U.S. Catholic Church these days. Church attendance among all but immigrants in the U.S. is dwindling. Dioceses are being bankrupted by the priest pedophilia scandal. As a result, the church is shuttering many Catholic hospitals, such as St. Vincent’s Hospital, a Greenwich Village fixture that fell into bankruptcy and closed in 2010. But there’s one possible growth market for the American church: Catholic schools.
Since at least the middle of the last century, many Catholic schools have offered excellent and rigorous academic regimens, with heavy doses of history, math and the sciences. They also have been, historically at least, significantly cheaper than other private schools.
According to USA Today, Catholic school enrollment hit its zenith in the 1960s when 5.2 million American students attended 13,000 schools. Last year, 2 million children attended 6,800 schools that cost significantly more to run.
What is the main difference between now and then? Real estate and labor costs are substantially higher, of course, but we all know the church does not lack for real estate. However, its labor costs have gone up at a significantly greater clip than have those of other school administrators. That’s because the laity have replaced many of the religious — primarily nuns — who staffed Catholic schools. Lay administrators, teachers and staff accounted for 97 percent of Catholic school positions in the 2011-12 academic year, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Religious and clergy represented only 3 percent.
Today, the United States has 60,000-plus nuns. Most hold paid positions to support themselves outside the church. Few wear habits.
With religious vocations attracting fewer entrants, lay teachers are the majority of staff in today’s Catholic classrooms, and those positions cost not only in terms of salary, but also in terms of benefits such as health care coverage and pensions.
Then too, Catholic schools face tougher competition for students, including from public schools in good neighborhoods where academics are still strong. Also, there are charter schools — not a factor at all until the last decade or two, whose parents want a better low-cost education for their kids.
So what’s a school system to do to fight an eroding student base? Apparently, administrators have decided the answer is marketing. You heard that right. Schools are raising awareness of their excellent academic records — 99 percent of high school students graduate and 85 percent go on to college, according to the National Catholic Education Association — mainly through community events and partnerships with local nonprofit organizations that serve children.
While the church isn’t exactly buying billboards in Times Square or running 60-second commercials on late-night television, some see any type of outreach as boastful and anathema to Catholic values.
The marketing efforts are working as enrollment has shifted from a steep decline to small upward gains.
I hope church officials don’t forget the big picture as they seek to draw flocks of students into the fold. If they want more Catholic school students, they need to clean up the reputation of the church hierarchy. They must make public all church documents regarding the priest pedophilia scandal, as a first step toward healing the scars created by that vast conspiracy and cover up. Then, they must end their war on American nuns. Once parents see church leaders making amends for past mistakes, they will feel more comfortable entrusting their children to Catholic schools.
Erbe is a TV host and writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service.