Why a revolution in Catholic School education is important to the City
By Jeremy Nowak
Growing up in a Philadelphia row home neighborhood in the 1950’s and 1960’s, my understanding of schools was based on a simple division between publics and Catholics. From my experience at the time, the publics were largely Jewish and African American. The Catholics were largely Irish and Italian.
The parallel Catholic system in Philadelphia rivaled the public district. At its height, Catholic schools educated more than one third of the city’s school age children. Today that number is less than 10 percent.
Back then, Catholic schools provided a quiet subsidy to the city by educating children who otherwise would have been in the public system, while many Catholic school homeowners paid real estate taxes for a public amenity they chose not to use.
Over the past half-century, Catholic schools in Philadelphia have declined due to changing regional demographics, a dramatic drop in the number of women who become nuns (a traditional pillar of Catholic education), the need to increase tuition, and the increased integration of Catholics into non-Catholic institutions.
The sexual molestation scandals also damaged the Catholic brand (and its finances), although the view of Catholic schools was not affected as significantly as the overall view of the church itself.
The decline of Philadelphia Catholic schools is part of a national trend: In 1960, there were about 13,000 Catholic schools in the United States. The number today is around 7,500. As with other institutions created, in part, as a reaction to discrimination, the decline of anti-Catholic sentiment has also changed the role of the schools and parish system that supported them.
But the decline of Catholic schools in Philadelphia may be coming to an end, or at least slowing down. Interesting changes are afoot. A movement that was so important to building the 19th and early 20th Century city, could make a big contribution once again.
Archdiocesan schools, like the School District of Philadelphia, have traditionally functioned as a monopoly. While some schools linked to Catholic orders (e.g. Jesuits or Christian Brothers) had significant autonomy from the Archdiocese, in general it was a top down system with the hub on the Parkway and the spokes at the parishes.
Monopolies are based, in part, on regulatory advantages that make it difficult for alternatives to emerge or compete. While there are economies of scale in large systems, monopolies can stymie innovation. Moreover they often have trouble responding to external changes, even when a response is in their self-interest.
The Philadelphia School District has had difficulty responding to two waves of competition over the past several decades: affordable suburban housing alternatives and the charter school movement. Both have chipped away at enrollment and changed the political calculus between Harrisburg and Philadelphia.
Nonprofits Faith in the Future and Independence Mission have taken over 32 Catholic schools in Philadelphia. Experiments such as these are happening around the country, but none at this scale.
The Archdiocese had neither the financial capacity nor the incentives to respond to the decline of its Philadelphia schools. As a regional body it followed Catholic demography, resulting in new Catholic schools in the high growth suburbs and closed schools in the city and inner ring suburbs.
Financially and politically, it was hard for the Archdiocese to see another way out. There were new announcements every few years about Catholic school closings.
But this began to change in the wake of the Archdiocese Blue Ribbon Commission report in 2012. Catholic civic and business leaders, alumni and philanthropists, had enough. It was one thing to more rationally manage decline, but they wanted stronger management, more autonomy, and targeted efforts at growth.
Since that time, Philadelphia has been at the center of an enormous experiment to re-think Catholic school management. And while it is much too early to know if it will succeed, there are some encouraging signs. Continue reading