Country’s Largest Roman Catholic Education System Embraces “Entrepreneurial Partnerships” and Outsources School Management

A private foundation will begin managing the country’s largest Roman Catholic education system on September 1. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia will transfer management of 17 high schools and four special-education schools to the Faith in the Future Foundation.

Declining enrollments, closings, and rising costs prompted the shift. “We’ve done a good job for years on the educational side,” said Bishop Michael Fitzgerald, who oversees education for the archdiocese. “We still do. It doesn’t mean that we can’t do that in more creative ways, through some other entrepreneurial partnerships.”

Enrollment in archdiocesan schools has declined 35 percent since 2001, and nearly 80 schools have closed or been combined in the past five years—49 this year alone.

Partnering with the Faith in Our Future Foundation, explained Bishop Fitzgerald, helps better ensure that “we are on the right path towards sustainable, academically excellent schools that are rooted in faith.” The decision to turn over management to a private foundation “reflects a paradigm shift, it serves to change the organizational structure for Catholic education, [but] not its mission,” said Archbishop Charles J. Chaput.

The Faith in the Future Foundation won’t be paid for its work and has begun a five-year, $100 million fundraising campaign raising $15 million so far.

The Philadelphia Archdiocese is not the first governing body to hand over day-to-day school management of its schools. In recent weeks, Highland Park City Schools in Michigan has outsourced school management. And, New Orleans is the country’s first wholly choice-based, charter-school district thanks to legislation passed in 2003 allowing Louisiana Recovery School District (RSD) to run failing schools instead of the Orleans Parish School Board.

Declining enrollments and rising costs affect all schools. Just keeping schools open—much less succeeding—requires abandoning business-as-usual management approaches. Catholic schools are no different in this regard, even though they excel at educating students, including low-income and inner city students, at a fraction of the government-run school cost. (See, for example, here, here, and here, p. 24.)

Nationwide, a Catholic elementary school education costs about $5,400 per pupil, but the tuition charged averages just $3,700. A Catholic secondary school education costs around $10,200 per pupil, but tuition averages only $8,200. In contrast, average government school elementary and secondary per-pupil expenditures exceed $12,000.

Better management could help the Archdiocese’s schools reduce costs and keep down tuition prices, putting a superior education within financial reach of more families—who, let’s not forget, must pay both out-of-pocket tuition as well as taxes for government schools. Some people, however, may be concerned that its entrepreneurial partnership could come at the expense of Catholic moral teaching.

It is worth remembering that Catholic institutions, such as universities, that stray from their Catholic moorings and morals already pay a price in the form of lost support—a market solution if ever there was one.

Back in 2009 the University of Notre Dame generated controversy (see, for example, here, here, and here) for conferring an honorary degree upon President Obama—even though he champions positions and policies opposed to Catholic sanctity-of-life teachings (including taxpayer-financed abortion, human embryonic stem-cell research, and contraception).

In response, alumni launched a website where donors report how much support they are withholding out of concern that Notre Dame “would use our donations to promote an agenda which is inconsistent with our faith.” Within one week of the website’s launch, $8.2 million in confirmed withheld donations were reported, increasing to nearly $14 million barely two weeks later—more than 9 percent of the university’s entire 2008 alumni and parental giving, $153 million.

Likewise, if any Philadelphia Catholic school begins losing its religion, as it were, parents would have plenty of other options. Pennsylvania has two tax-credit scholarship programs (see here and here) to help families transfer to other area private schools. There are also more than 30 Philadelphia-area charter high schools, including a charter school focused on students with special needs and a virtual charter high school.

This means if the Archdiocese’s agreement does not live up to its promise to shake up Catholic-school management, leaving intact its Catholic mission, parents can impose immediate consequences by transferring their children—and their education dollars—elsewhere.

Ensuring parents have a thriving marketplace of education options that reflect their academic and spiritual convictions reaffirms the primacy of parents in their children’s education and that the role of government is to promote—not interfere with—the free exercise of faith.

Some people may bristle at the idea of “entrepreneurial partnerships.” Many public-school advocates opposed to outsourcing certainly do because they apparently believe that absent government intervention, private contracts are little more than thinly-veiled, “greed-is good” deals like the ones made by the 1987 “Wall Street” movie character Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas).

Regardless of any public-sector discomfort, private enterprise and free markets are fully in keeping with Catholic teaching. In the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus (“The Hundredth Year”) Pope John Paul II repudiated consumerism and praised the “market economy” for being “an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector…” In particular: “The free market is the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to [worldly] needs.”

Centesimus Annus marked the 100th anniversary of the 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum (“Of New Things”) and built upon the teaching of Pope Leo XIII, who emphasized the rights and responsibilities of those who enter contracts, including the obligation to “fully and faithfully to perform the work which has been freely and equitably agreed upon…”

Together, these teachings reaffirm that free markets further the dignity of the human person—in sharp contrast to socialist or communist regimes, including their purportedly warmer and fuzzier variant, the Nanny State.

Catholic teaching is clear that children are not creatures of the state. “Since parents have given children their life, they are bound by the most serious obligation to educate their offspring and therefore must be recognized as the primary and principal educators,” stated Pope Paul VI in his 1968 Declaration on Christian Education, Gravissimum Educationis. The role of “civil authorities,” he added, is to “assist families so that the education of their children can be imparted in all schools according to the individual moral and religious principles of the families.”

Finally, genuine markets are rooted in morality, according to Pope Benedict XVI. “Society does not have to protect itself from the market, as if the development of the latter were ipso facto to entail the death of authentically human relations,” the Holy Father says in his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”). When markets break down, it’s “not the instrument that must be called to account, but individuals, their moral conscience and their personal and social responsibility,” he explained.

And that’s the crux of the decision by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to enter into an entrepreneurial partnership with a private foundation to improve operations of some of its schools. Archdiocese officials are displaying the humility to admit they need to do a better job. They are reaching out to those they believe will most likely help them succeed. Everyone involved is taking personal responsibility for improving educational opportunities for more Philadelphia-area families and their children.

Such humility could go a long way in the government-schooling sector, too, given increasing reports of school officials defying the wishes of parents as well as court orders. (See, for example, here and here).

Vicki E, Alger is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Senior Fellow and Director of the Women for School Choice Project at the Independent Women’s Forum. She is the author of the Independent book, Failure: The Federal Misedukation of America’s Children.
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