The National Catholic Review
What's missing in the debate on education
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The failure to educate poor minority children has remained an intractable problem, unsolved after almost 40 years of sustained federal efforts, despite the creation of the U.S. Department of Education in 1979. Arne Duncan, President Barack Obama’s choice for education secretary, has a big surprise coming: the problem he inherits is about to get exponentially worse. In short order, President Obama’s education team will be buffeted by three converging forces poised to overwhelm America’s K-12 school system: the swift decline in revenues available to fund public schools; the unsustainable cost of K-12 education as currently delivered; and the economic collapse of the Catholic parochial school system.

Already, the unnecessary and tragic closing of hundreds of inner-city Catholic schools has caused the first crushing waves of pressure to be felt. If this crisis is not addressed soon by more enlightened policies that support faith-based schools as a critical component of our national educational landscape, then hundreds of thousands of students—who previously were educated at little or no cost to the state—will enter public school systems that will be unable to accommodate them.

It is time to invite faith-based schools to be part of the national solution to public education’s woes. What does that mean? At its simplest, it means making sure that faith-based schools are part of the national conversation. At its most complex, it means public support for these schools beyond lip service or mere financial relief, as a genuine and effective alternative for inner-city children who have no access to quality public education.

Defining exactly what “public support” means should be high on Secretary Duncan’s agenda if he has any hope of reversing the deterioration of our educational system. Many of us in faith-based institutions are watching with interest to see whether bodies like the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Initiatives will accomplish something or produce only empty talk.

Certainly things need to begin with talk, but that talk needs to set a clear agenda leading to concrete action. So let us get an honest conversation started that includes all the players. And let us also be clear on the daunting financial issues facing public education across the country.

The decline in property and other tax revenues that pay for public education will soon put public schools under enormous budgetary pressure to accept cuts. More money is almost always the proposal to fix public education, but that option is gone for the moment. Instead, brace for announcements like the one almost made in Detroit earlier this year, that large urban school systems cannot make payroll and will have to close their doors.

At the same time, however, the costs involved in delivering K-12 public education continue to skyrocket. In inflation-adjusted dollars, public schools are spending more than 10 times per student what they spent just after World War II. Yet the United States now has math and science scores that are among the worst in the developed world, and fewer than half of black males graduate from high school.

In short, public education is often too expensive and the quality is often unacceptable, while the demand for better outcomes increases. Public education as a whole is not working well, and to help fix it, Secretary Duncan should turn to elements outside the system to give it some muchneeded relief.

The Cristo Rey Network

For generations, faith-based schools, particularly Catholic schools, have subsidized our inner cities by educating millions of disadvantaged students at no cost to taxpayers. What is more, the Catholic school system has produced responsible, productive citizens that the broader system would have left behind. America’s schoolchildren still need the benefit of this service, but because conditions have changed for the Catholic Church, a new response is required.

The Cristo Rey Network was formed eight years ago to replicate the original Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago and provide top-quality, Catholic, college preparatory education to economically disadvantaged students in cities across the country. Since its inception in 2001, the network has grown to 22 schools throughout the country and now serves more than 5,000 students, with four more schools planned in the next two years.

The Cristo Rey Network has some lessons for all schools in the United States, but especially for those serving the poor, because it is a direct response to three immediate needs: providing college preparatory education that accelerates student learning; providing proper preparation for students to enter the workplace; and running schools on a sound financial basis.

As a result of an innovative work-study program and college prep educational model, Cristo Rey students graduate and enroll in colleges at rates substantially higher than their peers. This is an important fact, given that students who earn a college degree generally earn higher incomes and have greater opportunities than those without one. The financial return on a college education continues to grow as the economy worsens and good jobs become fewer.

The Cristo Rey corporate work-study model, which ensures building core skills needed to succeed in college and the workplace, is not limited to the classroom. Each student works five days each month in an entry-level clerical job in a professional work environment. Teams of four or five students share a full-time job. The objective of these jobs is to reinforce the capabilities—reading comprehension, mathematics, discipline, a strong work ethic—that students need to be successful in college and career, as well as to provide students with new opportunities for growth often lacking elsewhere in their lives.

It is essential to note that the money Cristo Rey students earn from their jobs covers most of their school’s operating costs. The remainder is covered by modest tuition payments and similarly modest fundraising campaigns. Since money is hard to come by in a struggling economy, Secretary Duncan should consider the Cristo Rey solution as an innovative model that could help sustain America’s educational system as a whole. But public schools will not learn how to adapt this model—or other successful models created by faith-based schools—unless faith-based schools are at the table.

Faith-based schools are only a part of the solution, but as they grow stronger and make this kind of education available to more children in need, they solve a significant portion of the overall problem that many other schools have failed to address. Together, we can fix education at a cost America can afford.

Robert J. Birdsell is president and chief executive officer of the Cristo Rey Network, which operates 22 Catholic schools in 19 U.S. cities.

Comments

JAMES FANELLI | 6/26/2009 - 9:49am

This article recognizes the seriousness of the financial difficulties of Catholic schools generally, but focuses chiefly on the small community of Christo Re schools. Little attention is given to what I submit is a much larger missing element – a focus on parental rights and on ways of providing equitable financial assistance to parents, especially through such means as federal tax credits and especially vouchers. Lacking that assistance, and in the absence of organized advocacy, Catholic schools by the dozens, even hundreds are being forced to close every year because parents cannot meet the cost. The closing of those schools also creates an increased financial burden for cities and states, and the loss of large numbers of successful schools. We are facing a true crisis, but the silence is deafening.

 New, creative schools like the Christo Re schools are indeed a promising development. However, the more urgent need is to provide substantial help to all parents, including those in the Christ Re schools. Surely that should be a central element in the public debate. Passage of such legislation would achieve a major element of justice and honor in practice of one of our most basic principles – the priority of parental rights in education.

 Hopefully, the Catholic school community will join with others in organized efforts to meet that urgent need.

Stephen Haessler | 5/12/2009 - 4:12pm
This is a splendid article about one of the brightest lights on the education horizon by one of the country's most important educational reformers. I support the call that faith-based schools be at the table of policy formation. However, I fear that doing so in the current context of what Johannes Messner's "Social Ethics: Natural Law in the Western World" (1965) calls "the provider state" (p. 558) mentality. This mentality assmues government, in particular the federal government, has "the" answer to education reform. From an admittedly outsider's perspective, the success of the Cristo Rey model in truly educating high school students is linked to its institutional and financial independence. There is a role for government to play, perhaps acknowledging and celebrating success stories like Cristo Rey is one way Washington can serve the common good. But based on the pattern of over-reaching centrality and control exhibited by the Obama adminstration recently in the case of the private, independent, non-TARP-receiving Chrysler bond holders, I would fear too cozy a relationship between government do-gooders and real innovators like those at Cristo Rey. The contrast between the dismal outcomes of government-sponsored schools and the encouraging outcomes generated through charter, private, independent, and homeschool innovations is instructive. In any event, I offer the fine teachers, administrators, students, and families throughout the Cristo Rey Network continuing prayers of support and hopes for successful growth!
Carmen Nanko--Fernández | 5/3/2009 - 3:14pm
The question this fine article raises is "What's missing in the debate on education?" What remains missing is a sustained and public conversation on the fate of 65,000 plus alternately documented immigrant kids. Raised in the US, these students "live in the shadows with limited access to the educational options necessary for a secure future." Amidst the swirl of chatter surrounding the University of Notre Dame's presidential invitation, a major news story about Catholic education was ignored. On 3 April the USCCB issued letters to Congress urging passage of the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act). [See http://www.usccb.org/comm/archives/2009/09-075.shtml]. On Easter Sunday, one of the largest professional associations of Catholic theologians issued a statement taking a stance, with the USCCB,"in solidarity with our alternately documented immigrant youth." The Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians of the United States [ACHTUS] Statement is available at http://achtus.org/DREAMActStatement.html This is an issue facing the students in our Catholic classrooms at all levels, let alone in our parishes. Just ask the students of the University of St. Mary's in San Antonio, Texas as they deal with the possible deportation of one of their classmates, Benita Veliz [http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/28/opinion/28sat4.html]. Given the reality that over 50% of the US Catholic community under the age of 25 is Latino/a, surely this issue impacts the very future of our Church.
paul Birmingham | 5/2/2009 - 1:04pm
HE'S A SUGGESTION - FEDERAL GOVT.PAYS TEACHERS SALARIES. TEACHERS AND SCHOOLS MUST BE "CERTIFIED" AND SCHOOLS MUST BE EDUCATING POOR/DISADVANTAGED/INNER-CITY KIDS (65% OF THE STUDENTS MUST FALL INTO THE ABOVE CATEGORY} PUT THE KIDS FIRST, TEACHERS UNION SECOND, AND THE POLITICANS THIRD!
SANDRA JEWETT | 5/1/2009 - 7:20pm
As a Catholic school administrator I applaud your article. However, I would like to mention one important, but missing factor in the success of our Catholic schools: the theological preparation of our teachers and future administrators in all our faith-based schools, regardless of their models. Recently, the University of San Francisco, (USF), a Jesuit University, announced that it would be cancelling its graduate theology program, though it experienced an enrollment increased, above the break even number. Hence, their decision begs to explore the implications that it will have for faith based schools in the San Francisco Bay Area. If we are to maintain and support these schools, universities and K-12 systems must work together to fully live their commitment to “enroll, support, and graduate a diverse student body, which demonstrates … concern for others and a sense of responsibility for the weak and the vulnerable.” (This is taken directly from USF’s mission statement.) Anything less than living out our mission, become bylines and not part of our core beliefs. My MA in Theology from USF has helped me become better prepared to serve as a Catholic school principal in the urban setting. I believe that Catholic school educators need to be well-prepared to assume leadership roles in the future. We all know that the number of religious in our schools has dramatically decreased in the past 40 years. Thus, this preparation is crucial if we are to provide the same support and faith-based level, to our diverse learning communities, we received from our beloved predecessors. As teachers and administrators we serve as role models of faith and service to our students. However, merely desiring to teach theology or directing community service learning projects, does not give us the intellectual and academic preparation to be fully successful in our practice. In my opinion, praxis without theology is nothing more than simple volunteerism; it has no place in our Church, if we are truly committed to the evangelization and to the transformation of her future leaders. As a school administrator for an inner city Catholic school system, I believe that without firm grounding, the future of our Catholic schools is at-risk. From my perspective, I believe it is critical that universities, such as USF, respond to the intellectual needs of our future faculties and school administrators. We can talk about social activism, but without the support of our higher education institutions, social activism will be a hit-and-miss in our immediate neighborhoods and communities at-large. Thus, from my perspective, if we, Catholic universities and K-12 faith-based school systems, do not work in concert, we will gradually lose our Catholic identity and our purpose for existing. Hence, the elimination of the graduate theology program at USF will not help us to either support our Church or our schools of today and tomorrow.
Christopher Mulcahy | 5/1/2009 - 3:06pm
The Cristo Rey program is to be commended. One should note the photo accompanying the article--neatly dressed students. This element is an obviously necessary component to successful learning. The scandal is that our public school system has been allowed to deteriorate to its present, expensive, miserable state with the acquiescence of lib/Church/Demos and others, including particularly the university "education" community who know little about what works for children and lots more about what works for the politically powerful and their lib fellow-travelers. Giant improvements could be made with simple steps: 1) uniforms 2)eliminate all central school bureaucracies and outsource paychecks 3)teachers select books. You can add improvements--it's so easy to do, anyone can do it. If they choose.