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Sustaining Catholic Schools in the City


Not until I was well along in my professional life did I fully appreciate the fact that my early education was heavily subsidized by the free labor of women. From Sister Bridgetta in St. Colman’s kindergarten to Sister Margaret Claydon, SND, who was Trinity’s president when I was a student here, the fine Catholic schools I attended existed for the most part because religious women worked endlessly without ever earning personal salaries. A small tithe may have gone to support convent costs, but no student in Catholic school in my generation ever paid the actual cost of attendance because real professional salaries at competitive levels were simply not in the expense mix. “Contributed services” is the coldly clinical name given to the countless, irreplaceable hours of self-sacrifice by nuns whose only expectation was that we would learn reasonably well and try to live good lives.

I thought of these great women this morning when I opened an email message from my friend and former Trinity colleague Dr. Patricia Weitzel-O’Neill, Superintendent of Schools for the Archdiocese of Washington. Dr. Weitzel-O’Neill was Trinity’s Vice President for Academic Affairs in the 1990’s, and a tenured professor of Sociology. She left here to take on the grand mission of K-12 education in the Catholic schools in Washington.

In her message, Dr. Weitzel-O’Neill said that the Archdiocese is considering a proposal to convert some of Washington’s Catholic schools to charter schools in order to receive the financial support necessary to continue these schools in some of the city’s most economically challenged neighborhoods. A story in today’s Washington Post provides further information about this move, including an interview with Archbishop Donald Wuerl. Both Dr. Weitzel-O’Neill and Archbishop Wuerl addressed the very difficult nature of this decision, since such a move will require an end to religious instruction. But their choice is in favor of continuing excellent education for children who need the kind of close personal attention, discipline and values that can be more readily delivered in smaller classes with teachers and staff who believe in the mission. The only other option is to close the schools entirely, which would be a great loss for the children.

While parents are understandably upset by this news, this is an issue that demands attention to history and context. Across the country, the closing of Catholic schools in has been a clear trend for nearly four decades. Three large factors are driving this trend: first, the historic migration of Catholic populations from the cities to the suburbs meant that many once-thriving parishes have disappeared, leaving the parish school without a base of support. The parish organization was the backbone of immigrant Catholic communities in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the schools were a reflection of the desire of those Catholic parishes to educate their children according to their values.

Second, while the financial support for parishes and their schools came in part from donations to the weekly collection and other gifts, in fact, the greatest financial pillar for the schools was the contributed services of the nuns. Back in the day, when I went to grade school, there was no tuition charge at all, and the sisters staffed every grade. After the Second Vatican Council, which coincided with the women’s rights movement of the 1960’s, Catholic women saw different opportunities available for their professional lives and moved away from religious life, causing a catastrophic decline in the membership in religious orders of women. This is a huge topic for another day. But perhaps the greatest impact in the decline of religious vocations among women was in the erosion of the pillar of contributed services supporting the Catholic schools.

The late author Abigail McCarthy once wrote that Catholic religious women built the “largest, most far-flung system of education the world has ever known” (“A Luminous Minority”) through their commitment to building Catholic schools. This system continued through the Catholic women’s colleges that once numbered nearly 190, now just about 17 remain including Trinity. (Trinity and the Sisters of Notre Dame agreed to end the practice of contributed services in 1990, recognizing that the college needed to develop a contemporary business model that was self-supporting. To put the impact of the loss of that “living endowment” of SND service in stark numbers, Trinity should have had a $50 million endowment to produce the income stream necessary to replace the annual value of about $250,000 in contributed services from the Sisters of Notre Dame that Trinity was receiving at that time — and those numbers were even larger for earlier decades. Trinity’s endowment today is about $10 million.)

As religious labor declined in the schools and colleges, many dedicated lay women and men moved into the positions once held by nuns, and it’s fair to say that virtually all made some personal sacrifice to work at the lower salaries paid by Catholic institutions. The idea of contributed services continues even today in some measure in the work of our lay workforce. But lay teachers and administrators do need to have some pay for their work, and so over time the real costs of Catholic education became clear in rising budgets, the eventual imposition of tuition charges in schools that once were free, and then rising demands for higher salaries, benefits and better work conditions.

Which leads to the third major factor driving this issue: the competitive force of taxpayer-subsidized public education at all levels. The vast majority of today’s students from pre-school through doctoral education attend public institutions that are subsidized by states. Because of tax subsidies, these institutions have lower tuition prices and, quite often, higher salaries and more modern infrastructures generally than many Catholic institutions that have no tax subsidies and must rely on tuition and gifts to sustain their work today. Many educational consumers today simply do not understand the difference in the financial structures between public and private schools, resisting the tuition prices that private schools must charge while demanding the same level of services that mainstream public institutions can provide.

In higher education, this problem is mitigated in part because of the way in which federal financial aid works to provide tuition assistance to students regardless of the kind of institution they choose to attend (with the exception of the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant program, that oddly provides more support for students choosing public universities outside of Washington than private universities in Washington.)

However, in K-12 education, the problem is more complicated for several reasons. In many cities, D.C. being notorious, the failures of public education even despite massive public funding are a national scandal, leading many parents to seek other options. But “other options” often involve paying tuition, which is not a real option for many low income urban families, the majority of whom are African American and Latino, all of whom desire as fine an education as citizens can obtain in wealthier counties.

In the District of Columbia, a major advance occurred several years ago with the creation of a voucher program to support students attending private schools. Such programs are controversial because many private schools are Catholic, raising church-state separation issues. Those issues were resolved favorably for the voucher program. However, as today’s news about the Catholic schools reveals, even the voucher program is not enough. The new option, conversion to charter schools, raises the church-state issue in a new way because charter schools are clearly “public” schools that may not have religious instruction. The charte
r school model would provide more aggressive financial support, but comes with the risk that the school would lose precisely the core values that parents and students seek when choosing a Catholic school.

What’s the solution? Among many unhappy choices, the worst would be abandoning the hope of a good education for the children who need it most. Social justice is one of the core values of Catholicism, and empowering children and families through education so that they can advance economically must remain one of the most important works of the Archdiocese. Sustaining excellent education in some of the most impoverished neighborhoods in our city is truly a work of mercy, hope and justice.

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: