How to Save Catholic Education in 4 Not-So-Easy Steps
I make my living giving advice. Actually, much more than that. I make my living assessing challenging situations, developing strategic, actionable plans and implementing successful solutions for non-profit organizations. However, I am going to give some free advice to those concerned about the future of Catholic education.
A recent New York Times editorial, “Catholic Education, in Need of Salvation,” makes some very insightful and important points while highlighting some seemingly insurmountable challenges to Catholic education. Everyone involved with Catholic education knows the history of the change from the religious order-led model to a more expensive lay-led system. There is also the pressure of shifting demographics in the U.S. Catholic population that is straining the system. However, the potential undoing of the Catholic education system lies somewhat in its worthy mission. Not in the need to change the mission but in how to fulfill it. Canon Law states that “Pastors of souls have the duty of making all possible arrangements so that all the faithful may avail themselves of a Catholic education.” This sets Catholic education apart from other private institutions that, if they choose, can provide access primarily for only those who can afford it (or who excel in sports). This open invitation from Catholic schools provides quite a conundrum on how to pay for it.
The article concluded with a quote from John J. Hughes, the first archbishop of New York: “The school is more necessary than the church.” This is understood, particularly in providing at least part of the solution to break the cycle of poverty and disproportionate opportunity that exists in many urban areas and poverty-stricken communities where public education is failing. Catholic education is vital to providing educational opportunity for the underserved. The question is, how to fund it?
I have had the privilege to work with some of the best minds and most compassionate hearts in Catholic leadership. These are spiritual giants, intellectual geniuses and men of great wisdom. They are also good businessmen. But, these leaders, along with their fellow bishops and pastors, continue to struggle with a great balancing act when it comes to how to sustain a broken financing model for parochial, middle and secondary schools.
Here is where the free advice comes in.
There must be a consolidated approach to save Catholic education and make it more attractive as a sustainable model for investment. This is not an easy task. First, on the diocesan level, there are many competing interests. “Not my school.” “Not my parish.” “Not my donors.” That “parochial” view must be overcome. What good does it do to win the turf war if the turf becomes barren? Consolidated school consortiums must become the norm, providing opportunity, efficiency, affordability (and transportation) to more. Second, we must continue to advocate for changes in public policy such as voucher systems to allow families to choose how to spend their education dollars for the greatest outcome for their children in all communities. Third, Catholic education must develop and communicate a business model that provides donors confidence in the return-on-investment and sustainability for the future and not simply of sense they are “just feeding the meter.” Forth, the Catholic Church in the U.S. should explore and develop a vehicle for a national consolidated Catholic educational funding model: a national Catholic Education Endowment. That is not easy, but it is Christian. If we are not called to help the least among us, regardless of geography or parish and diocesan boundaries, what are we called to do? We have no problem in supporting worthy national and international Catholic causes such as Catholic Relief Services and others, why not a national Catholic primary, middle and secondary education endowment?
My friend Ray Coughlin, Director of Stewardship and Development at the Archdiocese of Chicago, was on to something when he pitched the concept of a planned giving campaign for Catholic Schools to his diocesan leadership. There will continue to be massive wealth transfer in this country. Why not to Catholic education on a greater scale equal to that of higher education and perhaps on a national level? Of course, before you can ask someone to take assets out of their portfolio, money from their bank account, or inheritance from their children to stick in your account only to use the earnings, you must have a business plan and model that is worthy of asking someone to leave a part of their life’s work to.
The chicken or egg question is finally answered. The first step is fix the model; then the hard work of gathering the eggs will be made more achievable on a grand scale. It will take courage, hard decisions and creative thinking. It will take sacrifice and sharing from all stakeholders. It will take a non-parochial and universal viewpoint. It will take engaging the best business, education and spiritual minds to create and implement the solution. But, absent this courage, continuing to ask donors for our daily bread over and over will not be enough. The statistics will overwhelm, and the mission will be diminished.
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