This week, Time has a welcome look at the plight of urban Catholic schools. The article, by Gilbert Cruz, rightly emphasizes that this is a problem for all of us. Every time one of these successful faith-based schools shutters its doors for financial reasons, the taxpayers ultimately pay the price in the form of more poor students dumped into already-failing public schools.
What Time doesn’t seem to get is the degree to which the deteriorating condition of Catholic schools has been exacerbated by public-school reform schemes that have been oversold to the public and, ironically, cheered by many conservatives and businesspeople. In New York City, for example, the Catholic schools are competing for teachers with a public school system that now has unheard-of sums of money to spend. In just the past seven years, the city’s education budget has increased from $12.7 billion to $22 billion. Teacher salaries have risen 43 percent across the board in six years, passing the $100,000 top-salary threshold for the first time. Ten years ago, the gap between the city’s top salaries for Catholic-school teachers and public-school teachers was around $28,000. It’s now $50,000. Catholic schools find themselves stuck on a treadmill in which they either have to raise salaries even higher — and pass the costs on to students’ families — or lose more teachers to the public schools.
The public-school monopoly is even winning the philanthropy race. Acting as though a per-pupil expenditure of $21,000 isn’t enough, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and schools chancellor Joel Klein have run a major fundraising drive that has brought in a whopping $400 million in philanthropic funds since 2002. Some of America’s wealthiest people, including Eli Broad, Michael Dell, Bill Gates, and Mort Zuckerman, have made major contributions. Gates alone has given about $125 million to New York’s public schools — which could have created an endowment big enough to prevent most of the city’s Catholic-school closings over the past few years. For Mayor Bloomberg, soliciting every last philanthropic dollar is a question of appetite. For the Catholic schools, it is a question of hunger. In the gilded city, appetite is winning.
The Catholics are still outperforming their much richer public counterparts in test scores and graduation rates. But Bloomberg’s public school system is indisputably better at public relations and marketing. Lots of taxpayer dollars are spent on a slick press operation, which has convinced most New Yorkers that exciting new options are now available in the public schools and that the schools have shown historic academic gains. By failing to analyze the public schools’ test scores critically, while almost never reporting on the achievements of the Catholic schools, the mainstream media have been complicit in this distortion. The Archdiocese of New York’s school system has a one-person PR office. How many potential customers are the Catholic schools losing because they can’t compete with the public schools’ well-oiled publicity machine?
The Catholic schools’ publicity deficit is also a matter of philosophy. Historically, Catholic school leaders have been reluctant to be seen as competitors with the public schools. They have been content to carry out their mission to educate poor children, assuming that if they built strong schools, the children would come. Clearly, that’s a luxury they can no longer afford.