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This WSJ article by Staphanie Banchero and Jennifer Levitz detail some of the promising signs for Catholic schools nationally, Vouchers Breathe New Life Into Shrinking Catholic Schools.  Though much of the largest gains are in states with voucher and tax-credit programs, especially promising is the enrollment growth in large cities like Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles – all in states which lack publicly funded scholarship programs.  It is notable that all three cities have a large commitment to privately funded scholarships and have been proactive in welcoming Latino families to Catholic schools, two factors that may explain some of their recent growth.

One has to wonder if the combination of expanding voucher and tax credit programs and efforts to innovate and adapt to changing markets have started to yield a systemic turnaround.  Though too early to suggest that the 50 year storm of enrollment decline and closure is abating, these are very promising signs that fairer weather may be on the horizon.

For the first time in decades, Catholic education is showing signs of life. Driven by expanding voucher programs, outreach to Hispanic Catholics and donations by business leaders, Catholic schools in several major cities are swinging back from closures and declining enrollment.

Chicago Catholic elementary schools saw enrollment increase 3% this year and 1% last year—the first two-year growth spurt since 1965. Greater Boston elementary schools had a 2% bump—the first in 20 years. And Los Angeles, Indianapolis and Bridgeport, Conn., also added desks for the first time in years.

Nationally since 2000, U.S. Catholic school enrollment has plummeted by 23%, and 1,900 schools have closed, driven by demographic changes and fallout from priest sexual-abuse scandals. Newark, N.J., and Philadelphia have announced plans to close even more Catholic schools.

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But lately, Catholic schools have slowed their overall rate of decline. This year, two million children attended Catholic schools, down 1.7% from last, but less than the average yearly decline of 2.5% over the past decade.

The improving prospects for Catholic schools in some cities come at a time of great ferment in U.S. education. Years of overhauls in public schools have yielded only modest progress. And attendance at independent private schools fell during the recession.

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Chicago Public Schools chief Jean-Claude Brizard, speaking on a panel hosted by the Economic Club of Chicago, offered support Monday for public money “following” students to private schools, which comes as a welcome surprise to parental choice advocates.

“It doesn’t make sense (that) our parents pay taxes and then pay tuition (for their children) to go to (private) school as well,” Brizard said.  He also added, “It’s a matter of making sure the dollars follow children. …If 500 traditional CPS (students) would go to the parochial schools … the proportional share (of dollars) should go to the school actually educating those children.”

Although Illinois still has a great deal of progress to make before school choice is realized throughout the state, news like this certainly give reason for hope.

The largest Catholic school system in the U.S., the Archdiocese of Chicago, can now boast enrollment growth in the city’s Catholic schools for the first time since the 1960’s.  In the midst of the worst and most stubborn recession this country has seen since the Great Depression, this news is simply incredible, almost miraculous!

Half of Chicago’s Catholic schools (53%) are stable or growing this year, compared with 35% the last several years.  Also particularly promising given Chicago’s booming Latino population and the critical segment of the Catholic market that Latinos represent for Catholic schools (see here for more), the Latino student population grew for the first time in Chicago in at least five years.

While other large Archdioceses are dealing with consolidation and school closure in an effort to find solid ground to begin building a more stable Catholic school system, Chicago is growing!!  How is this possible?  What is the magic in Chicago?

There’s no magic here, only a lot of hard work, strong leadership, and good ideas being effectively implemented.

First let’s mention leadership.  In July of 2008 Sr. Mary Paul McCaughey, O.P. took the helm as Superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Archdiocese.  She has brought energy and dynamism to the lead spot in the Catholic schools office.  In Spring of 2009 the Archdiocese founded a new powerhouse of a Board of Catholic Schools, which has sought to exercise leadership in governance and policy for the Archdiocese.  Though it may be too early to be seeing the impact of this board’s involvement, this is a promising sign for the future of Catholic schools in Chicago.  Finally and perhaps most importantly has been the ongoing vital contributions and innovations of the Big Shoulders Fund.  Between their 10 to 12 million dollars of annual scholarship contributions and other funding support to stabilize and increase enrollment, to their experiments in adding regional marketing and recruiting staff, Big Shoulders has been integral to the health of the system for many years.

The marketing, enrollment and scholarship push has been at the center of effective policies of the Archdiocese, and can be largely credited with the recent growth.  There is an Archdiocesan Marketing Enrollment Network (AMEN) that promotes and shares best practices, an increased investment in Enrollment Marketing Staff at the Archdiocesan and local levels, and broader efforts to strengthen the Catholic school brand.

Also noteworthy are 16 Catholic elementary schools that are part of an innovative experiment called Archdiocesan Initiative Model elementary schools.  This 3-year pilot transferred governance authority among a set of at-risk schools from the Parish to the Catholic Schools Office.  The Catholic Schools Office sought to invest in programs and policies that would translate to enrollment growth and financial health.  Though the program only began on July 1, 2010, the schools have already seen a net enrollment increase, many of them reversing multi-year trends of enrollment decline.   The Archdiocese is also committed to ensuring the vitality of St. Gregory High School’s, which is also participating in the Board Initiative.

Finally, the Archdiocese has continued to invest in an effort to boost Latino enrollment in Catholic schools that began last year.  Working together with the University of Notre Dame’s Catholic School Advantage Campaign, and receiving considerable support from the Archdiocese Enrollment Marketing Consultants, Latino enrollment grew for the first time in at least five years by 200 students, an increase of 1.7% of total Latino enrollment.  The Archdioceses remains committed to an audacious goal of doubling Latino enrollment in Chicago’s Catholic schools by 2020, which will require ramping up to a growth rate of 7% annually.  Efforts like this story on Univision Chicago will hopefully continue to build the momentum. 

All and all, these modest gains are a small miracle and an important sign of what is possible in American Catholic schools.  May it be the beginning of a changing trend and a model for policies and practices that can work in other places.

A special thanks to Ryan Blackburn of the Archdiocese of Chicago Catholic Schools for sharing the good news!

Op-Ed By: Robert J. Birdsell

I am encouraged by the recent amount of media and public interest in urban education in this country.  From the media excitement surrounding “Waiting for Superman” to the news this week of Joel Klein’s departure from the New York  school system, we as a nation are beginning to realize the crisis facing our inner cities and we are finally beginning to pay attention.

Today, a black male growing up in most cities in America has a better chance of being incarcerated at the age of 25 than of having a four-year college degree.  For Hispanics ages 25-29, less than 10% who go on to college complete a degree.  These facts are a national disgrace that is beginning to be understood, and it is no wonder many experts are thinking that we need Superman to fix this crisis.

However, Superman did arrive fifteen years ago, and his name is Fr. John Foley, a Jesuit priest who spent 34 years teaching and running schools in Peru.  In 1995, he was called back to America to open a new school on the southwest side of Chicago.  This school was to serve only low income students with limited educational options.  The uniqueness of the school was that the students were to work one day a week in some of the best companies in Chicago – McKinsey & Co., Deloitte, DePaul University and Winston and Strawn, to name just a few of the firms that signed on to the program.  They worked in real jobs and their earnings paid for over half of the expenses of their education.

Fifteen years later, Fr. Foley’s original school, Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, has resulted in a national movement.  The Cristo Rey Network was formed to replicate the school and ensure the quality of the new schools.  Thanks to the generosity of the Cassin Education Initiative Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, today there are 24 Cristo Rey Network schools serving over 6,500 students and working with over 1,500 corporate partners.  There are also nine other communities in various stages of starting a Cristo Rey Network school.

Even more impressive than this rapid growth are the results that Cristo Rey schools are achieving.  For the class of 2008, 100% of the graduates were accepted to college and, according to the National Student Clearinghouse, over 84% of those graduates have enrolled in college – more than twice the average for the population these schools serve.

Cristo Rey is a new innovation based on an old idea – that Catholic schools should provide students from low-income urban families with a high-quality education that develops their talent for success in college and beyond.  Furthermore, Cristo Rey is a new educational model – whereby we finance urban private schools through an innovative corporate work study program in which teams of students job-share full-time positions in professional settings, and thus develop skills, habits, experiences and dispositions necessary for long-term success.

Fr. Foley’s work over the past fifteen years has allowed thousands of young people to receive the quality education they and their parents dreamed of.  He has been fighting this crisis – just like Superman – for over 50 years, first in Peru and now in America.  So instead of waiting for Superman, those interested in true education reform have no further to turn than the local Cristo Rey Network school in their city.

Robert J. Birdsell is the President & CEO of the Cristo Rey Network

A recent blog post in a blog called Law, Religion and Ethics highlights the forthcoming article by Notre Dame law professors Nicole Garnett and Margaret Brinig titled Catholic Schools and Broken Windows (referring to the well known broken window theory about crime and urban deterioration), about their study of the impact of Catholic school closures on inner-city Chicago neighborhoods.  The blog post mentions the major findings of the Garnett and Brinig study:

The authors present extensive evidence that neighborhoods that lose their Catholic schools descend into greater disorder and eventually experience increased crime. Obviously there are issues of correlation versus causation, which the authors acknowledge and attempt to address.

Though I have not yet had the pleasure of reading their article, I have heard Professors Garnett and Brinig share a presentation on this study.  I can assure you that this article will be a valuable contribution to making the empirical case for the contribution of Catholic schools and the need to preserve and support them.  The study demonstrates empirically what Tony Bryk and others have argued before and many more have known through experience: Catholic schools in the U.S., especially urban Catholic schools, through their service to children, families and entire communities, are uniquely valuable institutions for preserving and protecting the common good.  We look forward to reading this important study!

Just added: here is a link to the law review article discussed above, Catholic Schools and Broken Windows.

Earlier I offered a post suggesting that 2010 might be the year of school choice, with five states to watch, Illinois, Indiana, Florida, Virginia and New Jersey.   Maryland was added to the list after 13 Catholic schools closed in Baltimore, making the issue more prescient and bringing  Democratic Governor O’Malley to change his stance and voice his support.

Well, the past few months have seen a lot of action, but unfortunately not a lot of victories.

Florida, thus far, has been the major exception.  Florida saw, as expected, a resounding victory and major support for expanded school choice legislation.  Florida raised the cap on the maximum scholarship amount and essentially wrote in legislation that erases the cap on the maximum participation in the state wide tax-credit program.  The legislation is written such that as soon as demand for tax-credits scholarships get within a certain number of the maximum allowed by law, the number is automatically raised.  This means, in effect, there is no cap on the number of tax-credit scholarships in Florida.  Florida is now the state that distributes the largest number of publicly funded scholarships to private schools and by far the most dollars in private scholarship programs.  Florida is also seeing incredible gains in student test scores, nearly erasing the achievement gap in reading in the past 10 years, a feat that has eluded educators and policy makers for generations.  Florida has an incredibly strong coalition and total bi-partisan support for parental choice.  Things will just continue to get better there.

That’s the good news, now for the bad…

Despite what appeared to be an important opportunity to shine a light on the vital role that Catholic schools play in urban communities and the significant public interest at making them more accessible through parental choice programs, the Maryland tax-credit legislation, BOAST, died in the House this April.

In May, the exciting prospects of a voucher bill passing in Chicago, as I discussed here, here,  and here suffered a major set-back.  The Chicago Trib covered the sad story.  Though the bill passed in the Senate – a rather incredible feat –  it too died in the Democratically controlled House.  But as the Miracle Man (played by Billy Crystal) in the Princess Bride says, its “only mostly dead, which is not all dead.”  Its still technically alive, but it looks like it will take a miracle to bring it back to life.  The good news is that School Choice Illinois has reinvented itself with some strong new talent that I recently had the pleasure of meeting.  The big picture here is that this is a moral victory of sorts.  It means that school choice in Illinois is now that much closer to being within grasp.  If an effective coalition can be built with strong grass-roots support then Senator Meeks will not be  a voice in the wilderness crying out for school choice but a leader with clear and strong support among various actors.  Without this kind of base, there is no consequence for those that do not support choice, while those that do support choice risk incurring the wrath of the teacher’s unions or losing their link to the single largest special interest source of political funding in America.  We need to educate the community and religious leaders that represent the parents and communities that stand to gain so much from these programs.

That leaves Indiana, Virginia and New Jersey, as states that still have good possibilities for wins.  I’ll come back with updates on these three states in my next post.

Senator James Meeks (D-Chicago) succeeded in getting his bill passed in the State Senate to pilot vouchers in Chicago for students in failing public schools.  As I have mentioned in an earlier post, this would not only be an important step towards educational justice for tens of thousands of children consigned to failing Chicago schools, but it would also make the largest Archdiocesan Catholic school system more accessible to needy families.

The bill passed with a vote of 33-20, pretty incredible in a Democratically controlled Senate.  But major challenges lie ahead as the vote moves to the House and has received a chilly response from Democratic Governor, Pat Quinn.

“This voucher legislation targets those most in need, and we know our Catholic schools can help,” said Robert Gilligan, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois, which supported Meeks’ legislation.

This contention, that Catholic schools can help, is certainly supported by the data, which suggests that low-income minority students that attend a Catholic school are 42% more likely to graduate from high school and two-and-a-half times more likely to graduate from college than their public school peers.

We’ll be watching this one closely!