A new business model for Catholic schools amid tough times

Anyone who cares about Catholic education ought to watch what’s happening in Philadelphia, not just because the archbishop there has turned twenty-one of his schools over to a private foundation, but because that foundation is applying business principles to schools that sorely need them.

Carter and Faith in the Future have the potential to invigorate a vital sector of education throughout North America.

For starters, the Faith in the Future Foundation two weeks ago chose a longtime education and charter-school guru named Samuel Casey Carter to shepherd its new network of Catholic high schools to viability. Carter has a resume you don’t generally find in a school administrator, and he knows how to measure a school’s effectiveness in ways that would be lost on the typical bishop.

But, if they succeed, Carter and Faith in the Future have the potential to invigorate a vital sector of education throughout North America.

One would be hard-pressed to find a diocese presently undertaking an analysis of the market conditions affecting its schools and its finances, but that’s precisely what Carter spent his first few days on the job developing. In a recent interview, he laid out a plan that would examine 1.) which of the seventeen high schools and four special education schools now in his charge can continue to compete with neighboring public and charter schools as well as high-quality private, college-preparatory schools, and 2.) which schools are running deficits and may need the most help—financial and otherwise—to  accomplish their mission.

Analyses of the schools’ operations and instructional offerings would follow – and prescriptions may include more virtual and blended-learning opportunities – but Carter is right to focus first on which schools may challenge the foundation’s job the most. At the end of that process, he should consider reviving the strongest schools by closing the weakest.

That may seem counterintuitive in an archdiocese that has seen the closure of twenty-seven schools this year alone, but nostalgia has no room alongside the economic pressures that continue to beset Catholic schools. Enrollment at Philadelphia’s Catholic schools has fallen by 34 percent in the last ten years to just 68,000 students while enrollment at “free” charter schools has grown by 34 percent in just the last three years to 47,000 pupils.

Nostalgia has no room alongside the economic pressures that continue to beset Catholic schools.

Carter can revitalize the strongest schools in his portfolio with the strategic closing of schools that simply can’t compete in a changing public education landscape. That may complicate his intent to boost fundraising among Philadelphia Catholic school alumni and further agitate the region’s 1.5 million Catholics, but the church’s flock must understand that closures done purposefully not only may strengthen other schools, they may strengthen the mission of Catholic schools as well.

It’s clear that Carter and former Cigna Corporation chief Edward Hanway, who chairs the foundation, are concerned that there be quality seats in Philadelphia’s Catholic schools that are accessible to students unable to afford them. But there is only so much philanthropy to go around to make educating the poor the signature mission of these schools—as the Church has long done—and while Pennsylvania lawmakers have enhanced more voucher-like opportunities for lower-income kids, vouchers and tax credit scholarships alone haven’t reversed the enrollment slide at most major urban Catholic schools nationwide.

That leaves some possible tough decisions ahead, but they’re ones that Casey is well equipped to build a case for. He’s the former president of the esteemed National Heritage Academies network of charter schools and the author of the 2000 book, No Excuses, which jolted education reformers by showing how inner-city schools can succeed academically despite the poverty and circumstances that afflict their students.

So Catholic school advocates (not to mention policy makers) should consider the elements working in their favor in Philadelphia: A business-savvy chief executive working to develop an operational plan for Catholic education and who can probably do a better job raising money than the church; an archbishop with a demonstrated commitment to Catholic education but who turned all of his high schools to a foundation he thought could do a better job; a political climate that pushed through tax credit scholarships for poor kids; and a sizable Catholic population that whipped up enough passions this year to keep many other schools from closing.

“What we do here will be a model for others to emulate,” Carter told me last week. But he also knows he has to be successful for that to happen. He needs the support not only of Philadelphia Catholics and those who care about Philadelphia’s Catholic schools, but the Catholic Church writ large. Carter may very well find a business model worth replicating. God willing!

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