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The Indispensable Role of Nonpublic Schools in Public Education

Engineers Club

Thanks very much to Jay Schwartz for the invitation to join you today    for your “50 on Friday” luncheon.  It’s a pleasure to be with you.

I’d like to begin my remarks by briefly discussing the concept of “public education” and the partnership that both public and nonpublic schools share in that enterprise.  For the most part, my remarks relate specifically to education at the elementary and secondary level.

Most of us probably think of public schools – schools paid for entirely by taxpayer dollars and available free of charge to students – as the sole providers of public education.  But I’d like to suggest that if we consider the provision of education as a public service – much like the provision of health care or social services – we can easily see that nonpublic schools play a critical role in educating the public, that is to say, in public education.  In what follows, I shall use the terms public and non public schools in their traditional sense.

To be sure, there are differences between public and nonpublic schools.  The first I’ve already mentioned: public schools, funded by taxpayer dollars, are free to all students.  For the most part, nonpublic schools must charge tuition in order to operate. Public schools, by and large, follow a uniform set of educational methods, standards and assessments.  Nonpublic schools of this very nature, run a spectrum and tend to offer a broader variety of educational settings. Public schools offer a secular curriculum. The majority of nonpublic schools are faith-based.

Yet despite their differences – perhaps because of their differences – the healthy coexistence of public and nonpublic schools is indispensible to meeting the needs of public education. Although there may be two different delivery systems, both the public and nonpublic school have as their educational mission the same responsibility to meet the needs of the students that they serve. For the nonpublic school this becomes a Herculean challenge when financial support is totally driven by tuition.

Let’s take economics as a simple example.  Nonpublic schools educate more than 136,000 Maryland students. This public service saves state taxpayers more than $1.3 billion annually in per-pupil expenditures. With state spending for public schools at more than $5 billion annually, our public school system could not possibly accommodate the addition of so many students in our public school classrooms.

The necessity in our land for public education to meet the unique needs of each individual student is also well served by the availability of diverse educational settings.  As educators and parents know well, young people don’t fit easily into one-size-fits-all models.  Often, finding the right school for a young person can make the difference in securing his/her future success. When those options are readily available, the education of all thrives, ensuring that our state is an attractive place to live and do business.

Faith-based schools in particular provide innumerable benefits to the education of our young citizens. There are more than 4 million children being educated in faith based schools across the United States. One third of these faith base schools are Catholic schools. Here I can speak, of course, with the most familiarity about Catholic schools.  As you may know, Maryland claims an important part in the history of Catholic education. It was here, nearly 200 years ago, that Elizabeth Ann Seton founded our Catholic parochial school system.  That long legacy of service has not left us untouched, even today. I doubt there are many in this state – perhaps even in this room – who have not either personally benefitted from attending a Catholic school, or who do not know someone close to them who has done so.

The benefits I’m talking about are not only the benefits that derive from solid academics.  I’m also talking about the more important benefits that come from acquiring values that are foundational to the aim of a good, solid education.  For sure, the principal purpose of Catholic education—if not the sole purpose—is, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI during his recent visit here, plainly stated: “Every Catholic institution is a place to encounter the living God, who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth.”  Like every other school, the faith-based school seeks to help students discern and prepare for their purpose in life – a life best fulfilled by applying their individual gifts to serving the needs of others.  What we most want to accomplish in our schools is an education that first inspires students to recognize their own unique gifts and talents, then helps them train and perfect their skills, and finally encourages them to go out and change the world for the better.  If this is the kind of citizen that public education aims to produce, then it is clear that Catholic and other faith-based schools make great contributions in achieving that goal.

To summarize then, economically, educationally, and socially, nonpublic schools make invaluable contributions to the enterprise of public education. Nonpublic schools provide a viable alternative whereby parents/caregivers can fully participate in determining the best educational environment needed for their children’s total growth.

With those remarks as background, I’d like to touch on an issue that is attracting increasing attention from the public, namely, the struggles facing Catholic inner-city schools – here in Baltimore and throughout the country.

Since 2000, more than 1,200 Catholic schools have closed around the country, most of them in urban areas. These closures have displaced more than 425,000 students. This is especially troubling for minority students. Since 1970, the minority population at Catholic schools, for example, has increased by 250 percent, and the non-Catholic population in those schools has increased by more than 500 percent. Here in Baltimore City, we have seen nine schools close or merge, with an overall enrollment decrease in the past five years of nearly 2,000 students. 

Some factors contributing to these trends affect public and nonpublic schools equally, such as changing demographics and the overwhelming cost of maintaining aging facilities.  Other factors are unique to Catholic schools:  the loss of subsidies from city parishes with declining numbers of parishioners, the challenge of adequately compensating faculty while maintaining affordable tuition, and the difficulty of closing budget shortfalls caused by the gap between tuition and the actual per-pupil cost of education.  Many of these same challenges are increasingly affecting our suburban schools as well, where we are also seeing a marked decrease, especially in elementary enrollments.

I want to assure you that I have a deep personal commitment to sustaining the service that Catholic schools – here in the city and throughout the state – have provided for the past two centuries.  It is one which I know is shared by all leaders of Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

With the help of the best internal and external expertise we can find, we are strategically evaluating the short-term and long-term health of all our schools, in order to ensure their individual viability and the viability of our entire system.  By partnering with organizations and institutions in the public sector, such as Johns Hopkins University’s MBA program--which recently studied our inner city schools with the goal of providing us valuable insight and ideas for building a stronger and more effective system, we give our schools the best opportunity to remain stabilizing educational forces in our community.  We are also continually looking at new models for operating our schools, such as the exciting new Cristo Rey Jesuit High School that opened its doors this past school year.  Together with five other dioceses spanning four states and the District of Columbia, we have created the Mid-Atlantic Catholic Schools Consortium to identify and implement collaborative solutions to the common challenges we face.  And, of course, we are examining our development needs to ensure that no private or philanthropic dollar that could benefit even a single student goes untapped.

But I’m not too proud to ask for your help.  If I’ve been successful in making the case that the health of nonpublic schools is critical to the health of public education at large, then I hope you would agree that the challenges facing Catholic, and I am sure many other nonpublic, schools should be a matter of concern for all of us. 

When we consider the extraordinary service that our inner city Catholic schools provide, the enrollment trends and school closings we’ve seen recently are dis-heartening.  Serving predominantly minority, low-income students, most of whom are not Catholic, these schools provide a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to families and neighborhoods that often have no other avenue for escaping the chronic ills that plague our city.  Given the chance to believe in themselves and their future prospects, students in our schools consistently beat the odds to perform well academically, to graduate from high school, to attend college, and to go on to lead successful, productive lives.  In fact, 97 percent of our students graduate from high school, 95 percent go on to attend college, and 100 percent participate in community outreach. Yet these important institutions which have been proven most successful and productive are disappearing for financial reasons. Here lies the irony, the more we fulfill our social and moral responsibility the more schools we close.   To contemplate the loss of these opportunities is to contemplate a loss for all involved – the students, their families, and the city.

How can you help us maintain this service?  I would suggest three ways in particular that you might want to consider.

The first is the most obvious – the financial support of individuals and businesses is vital to helping all of our schools, and we are deeply grateful to all those donors who have been so generous to us.

In addition to your treasure, we very much welcome your talent, which can be shared in a multitude of ways, such as volunteering as mentors and tutors, or assisting in our diocesan or school based strategic planning, marketing, or development ventures.  As we are discovering through the new Mid-Atlantic Catholic Schools Consortium, the more we can bring to bear the expertise of the marketplace to the cost-efficiency and professional management of our schools, the better we can steward our limited resources.

Finally, I encourage you to lend your voice and political influence to the support of public policies that provide for the needs of nonpublic school students, teachers and families through constitutionally-permissible state programs.  One particular effort I’d like to bring to your attention is a promising initiative that has been recently considered – but not yet passed – by the Maryland General Assembly.  Based on a highly successful program in Pennsylvania, the proposal, called the BOAST Maryland tax credit, would provide a state tax credit to businesses that donate to scholarship organizations for nonpublic school students, or to organizations that provide enrichment programs for public school students.  For families who wish to attend our inner city Catholic schools, the proposal would provide tremendous help in increasing scholarships to assist in meeting the rising costs of tuition.  The proposal would also help increase business investment in critically important after-school and other enrichment programs for inner-city public school students.

Since 1996, our Partners in Excellence scholarship program, founded by Cardinal William Keeler, has raised over $25 million and distributed over 18,500 scholarships to children in Baltimore City Catholic School students.  We are grateful to a good number of corporations and foundations in Baltimore who continue to be helpful in this effort.  Imagine how many more children we could educate with the incentive of a BOAST Maryland tax credit?

The acronym BOAST, which stands for Building Opportunities for All Students and Teachers, reflects the ultimate intent of the proposal.  Through the increased investment of our business community, supported by a state-based tax incentive, this proposal can truly help to build a diverse and affordable system of public education in our state that we can all BOAST about.  I hope you will join us in helping to pass this worthy initiative in the next session of the General Assembly.

Again, thanks to all of you for your kind attention, and for your interest in the needs of all students here in Baltimore, and throughout the state of Maryland.