The Deacon's Bench

The Deacon's Bench

Is this the way to save Catholic schools?

The Wall Street Journal takes a look at one enterprising business model:

Tim Busch has an answer to the epidemic of closing Catholic schools. And it has nothing to do with vouchers.

It couldn’t come at a more critical moment. Over the next few days, nearly 2.2 million students and their families will celebrate Catholic Schools Week. Though the Catholic school system remains America’s largest alternative to public education, the number of both schools and students is roughly half what they were at their peak in the mid-1960s. According to the National Catholic Education Association, the trend continued last year, with 162 Catholic schools consolidating or closing against only 31 new openings.


Amid the gloom Mr. Busch offers a prescription for revival: End the financial dependence on parish or diocese. Build attractive facilities. And compete for students.

If that sounds like a business formula, it is. Mr. Busch is a good friend I came to know through Legatus, an association of Catholic CEOs. Spend any time around him, and you’ll find he believes that America needs Catholic schools more than ever, and that they can compete with the best. To prove it, he’s helped start up two privately run Catholic schools–St. Anne elementary school and JSerra high school, both in southern California.

Now, there are plenty of upscale Catholic schools with waiting lists–especially those run by religious orders. But here’s a fact that gets little mention: a Catholic education is in danger of becoming a luxury for the middle class. It’s hard to be optimistic about the future of Catholic schools in our inner cities if Catholics cannot make a go of these schools in the suburbs, where most Catholics live.


Do the math. In my area of New Jersey, for example, a Catholic high school whose tuition clocks in at $15,000 a year is deemed a bargain. For a family with three or four kids, the total tuition can top $3,000 a month. Young middle-class families struggling with a new mortgage and high property taxes can find themselves squeezed: not wealthy enough to pay, not poor enough for aid.

In Mr. Busch’s case, he says he got the idea for starting up St. Anne after he and his wife went looking for a Catholic school for their first child–and were depressed by the dilapidated facilities they found at many schools. Ultimately he and his partners settled on a model where parents take responsibility for operating the school, with the diocese ensuring the teachings are authentically Catholic. It’s a division of responsibility much in line with Vatican II, freeing up pastors to be pastors while tapping into the financial, legal, and business abilities of lay people.

Check out the link for more.

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TJ D'Agostino - Catholic School Advocate

posted February 2, 2010 at 12:25 am

Thanks, Deacon Greg, for your interesting blog! Mr. Busch’s idea is worth-while and important, but you put the nail on the head by asking about the accessibility of new suburban Catholic schools to low-income children. This becomes a matter of justice, where the poor are denied the right to an education in faith, often consigned to failing public schools. It is for this reason that it needs to be a both/and, both building new schools in the burbs with more parental buy-in, and fighting aggressively for parental choice legislation, which is the most viable long-term solution for ensuring equal access to Catholic schools and their long-term viability. Especially in New Jersey, and increasingly throughout the country, these programs are politically viable. We need to get serious about advocacy that makes a Catholic education accessible to all that seek it.

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posted February 2, 2010 at 12:57 am

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

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Dcn Scott

posted February 4, 2010 at 11:05 am

Our diocese, which is growing rapidly, is on the ragged edge of being a growing church closing schools. For Catholic schools to survive and thrive it takes vision, foresight, and creativity, not just brick and mortar. Keeping schools financially viable and accessible to Catholic families at various income levels, with few or several children requires a plan, effort, and energy.

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Catholic school parent

posted February 9, 2010 at 2:08 am

“It’s a division of responsibility much in line with Vatican II, freeing up pastors to be pastors while tapping into the financial, legal, and business abilities of lay people.” This says it all- the diocese and many parish priests today don’t understand the value of a Catholic education and don’t believe that part of a pastor’s job is to oversee the Catholic parish school, or that a Catholic school is a major part of the parish community, educating the future leaders of the church. Today, the diocese and many parish priests look at the school as a private school, to be run by lay people, at a cost that is only affordable to a relatively few. In the 1950-60s, the diocese and parish priests believed in the value of offering a Catholic education to everyone. Interacting with the schools was a major part of a pastor and priest’s daily routine. Vocations were stronger as students learned to look up to the clergy, just as students in public schools look up to teachers and consider teaching as a profession. Today, the lack of interaction between the rectory and the school has decreased both Catholic school enrollment and vocations to the priesthood and religious orders. In the 1960s many Catholic schools had little or no tuition. The schools were overflowing with 40-60 students to a class and multiple classes per grade. In the 1980s, tution was high but affordable for the middle class, but not the lower clsss. In the 1990s, tuition increased, the diocese and parish priests began to cater to the evening religious education classes over their Catholic schools, as higher tuition reduced the number of students attending Catholic Schools, therby increasing the size of the evening religious education program. Today, it is a real sacrifice for the middle class to afford a Catholic education. In many cases the parish schools have made cutbacks in the quality of the education, or the tuition is unaffordable. Many Catholic Schools can provide a quality education at half the price per student as the public school budget spends, but without a voucher system only the wealthy can afford tuition. While marble and statutes are deemed necessary expenses in many parish churches, clean floors and new library books have been deemed unneccessary expense in many parish schools.

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