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We Are Made for This

Earlier this week, our fearless leader, Jill Kafka, joined America Media Editor-in-Chief Matt Malone, S.J., to discuss the future of Catholic education and how our communities are faring as we adapt to the coronavirus crisis. “We are built for this,” Jill explained (see the whole interview here).

There is no question that times are tough, and we know that so many of our students and families are suffering. But Catholic schools were built to serve through good times and bad. Like so many across the country, our seven Catholic schools have been there for struggling immigrant communities in New York City for more than 150 years. We are unwavering in our commitment to our families.

Yet today, in far too many communities, the future of urban Catholic education is in question. In just the past two months of the coronavirus school closures, the pace of Catholic school closures has been relentless: ten in the Archdiocese of Newark, including its Cristo Rey High School; five in Camden; others in Harrisonburg, Galvaston-Houston, and Fall River. The oldest Catholic girls’ high school in Baltimore, the Institute of Notre Dame, which has been open since the Civil War and which boasts such notable alumni as Nancy Pelosi and Barbara Mikulski, will close this year. And this is just the beginning.

Given the financial struggles Catholic schools were facing before COVID began, the economic impact of this pandemic may well be the nail in the coffin of dozens—perhaps hundreds more. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

As Jill explained, Catholic schools are uniquely well positioned to adapt to meet the challenges of this new era. But to fulfill this potential, we need to do more than adapt to the needs of the moment. We need to innovate in ways that go beyond the crisis by adapting our operations to survive. partnering with funders who are willing to think differently, and advocating for the policy change we need to ensure parents have real choice.

Adapt to Thrive

Throughout the COVID crisis, Catholic schools have been remarkably able to adapt and rise to the challenge of the moment. Whereas large urban public-school districts have been frozen in place as officials and stakeholders argue about the best way forward, Catholic schools across the country have moved quickly to ensure that communities remain connected and learning continues throughout the entire period of the shutdown.

This flexibility is helping strengthen our relationship with families at a time when they have increasing options for their children. Whereas twenty years ago, Catholic schools were the only option for parents seeking alternatives to traditional public schools, now parents in most large urban districts can choose from among a host of alternatives.

We must continue to bring this nimble, entrepreneurial spirit to the challenges that await our schools in the months and years ahead.

Find Innovative Fundraising Solutions

The reality is that rising personnel costs stemming from the shift from religious to lay faculty as well as declining Catholic populations and parish support in urban centers have forced schools to operate on austerity budgets. Greater access to public funding in the 27 states that have voucher or tax credit support has helped, but we must do more to find innovative ways to support Catholic education.

Models like Cristo Rey High School show that outside-the-box thinking can help. At Partnership Schools, we are looking at ways of diversifying our portfolio of schools to minimize the fundraising impact on any one school or region. Other diocesan schools have found ways to leverage the real estate assets held by the Church to create long-term revenue streams. And the courage of a number of foundations and individual donors to make game-changing, long-term gifts makes all the difference for networks like ours.

All of these efforts help, but we must never stop looking for ways to think differently about how to fund Catholic schools without balancing our budgets on the backs of families who can ill afford it.

Advocate for policy solutions to drive change

Over the long-term, we understand that, to ensure a vibrant, Catholic school sector that serves our nation’s poorest children, we must advocate for policy change that provides equitable funding for private and Catholic schools. Catholic leaders must make their voices heard, not only to expand equal choice in education to new states but to protect and fund it fairly in areas where it exists.

Fr. Malone reflected at the end of the America broadcast, “How do you bring about change? How do you take what is best from that tradition, that history, and bring it forward into a new century?…That process works best when we don’t ask, what can we do that has never been done before, but how do we do what we have always been doing in a new way?”

We think these are precisely the questions that need asking–and some of the answers that dioceses, philanthropists, parents’ groups and schools must join us in proclaiming to ensure that Catholic schools can be the indispensable institutions for the communities that need them the most.