Sunday, February 19, 2017

Committed to Mission and Purpose: Sustaining the Ministry of our Christian Schools

The Diocese of Pittsburgh announced the merger of a number of its schools this week, including the closure of at least one school in our area.  Citing increasing costs and declining enrollment, in some cases, two schools are being consolidated into one, for more efficient operation in one building.  This is not just a local diocese issue.  It is something that Catholic education is facing all over the country. 

Catholic schools were born out of a necessity seen by the church to preserve and protect its teaching from anti-Catholic sentiment in the public education system.  The term "Christian Education," as they defined it, meant that the children of church members should be enrolled in schools operated by the church, from kindergarten through twelfth grade, driven by the mission of having five days a week in addition to Sunday to strengthen their faith.  The church assumed the burden for the costs of school operation.  They utilized classroom space in church buildings that stood empty all week except for a couple of hours on Sunday.  Almost all of the teachers and administrative personnel were drawn from various ministry orders, priests, monks and nuns who were committed to serve under a vow of poverty, and required no salary in exchange for their services.  A portion of the budget of each diocese, from collection plates, went to support schools, and a whole long list of well known Catholic fundraising ventures was put into place to secure equipment and textbooks.  For many years, Catholic families didn't have to pay tuition and fees, and even up until recently, the tuition rates have remained low compared to most private schools. 

Things have changed.  The costs of providing a quality education have increased substantially, and as that has happened, the number of Catholics entering orders has sharply declined.  Schools are no longer able to rely on enough nuns or priests to cover all of their classes, and have had to hire teachers in a competitive market.  Offerings and fundraising are no longer adequate to sustain the expense of operating a school, and having to increase tuition and fees for Catholic families has contributed to a decline in enrollment among those not able to afford the additional expense.  Students educated in Catholic schools are the largest single source of church clergy, and the decline in school enrollment directly correlates with the current severe shortage of priests that the church is now experiencing, along with declining attendance and membership. 

These trends are worth noting, because the same thing has been happening among Christian schools operated by Evangelical Christians.  There are many similarities in terms of having a mission aimed at having students educated in an environment favorable to their family faith and values, and in preparing the younger generation for service in the church.  We have our own version of vows of poverty when it comes to teachers and staff.  Perhaps the main difference is that most Evangelical schools have been tuition driven, and tuition dependent for their entire existence, since independent and autonomous Evangelical denominations and churches haven't been willing, at least up to this point, to share in Christian school ministry support.  An average of 25% of the budget of a Catholic diocese goes to its schools, while the typical Evangelical denomination spends less than 5% on school-based education, with most of that money going to colleges, universities and seminaries.  Most Evangelical Christian schools are completely dependent on their tuition collection, and any outside fundraising they can scrape up. 

More than 300 Christian schools in this country close their doors each year.  Circumstances come together in many cases which lead to their closing.  Declining populations in some areas make it difficult to sustain a school where it was once possible.  But for most of them, the reasons are similar to those of the Catholic schools.  The cost of operating a school has increased substantially, and as they go up, the balance that must be in place between tuition and other resources as income must remain in place, or enrollment will decline.  The impact is felt immediately in most Evangelical schools, because there is no buffer when it comes to church support.  Voucher programs and financial aid tax credits have slowed down the closure rate, but they are not adequate to meet a growing need that goes all the way up to the middle class. 

Many of the factors which are now considered to be common among Christian schools that are surviving into the 21st century are present here at PCS, and are contributing factors to our continued existence.  Schools that have made a commitment to academic excellence as a partner with a distinctively Christian atmosphere are surviving.  Fewer than 5% of the schools that close in any given year have pursued accreditation.  Willingness to pursue affordability and equalize expenses for families through tax credit scholarships, contributions, income-based tuition and even vouchers is also a factor.  Recognizing that a Christian school is not just for the 20% or so of the general population that could afford it is an indication of a philosophical foundation that is a force in the school working for sustainability.  As a school, at the present time, our sustainability is good, but we need to stay on top of a changing situation, and keep the balance in place that has allowed us to enjoy the blessing of an excellent school, and make sure that future generations can also enjoy it. 

Some schools have made sacrifices to cut costs in an effort to remain viable.  Some may hire individuals without degrees or teaching credentials to work in their classrooms.  They may consolidate grade levels in a single classroom, or depend on cyber classes to fill in gaps where they don't have staff.  There are some school models which have been tried, including some combinations with home-based education, in order to cut costs.  The problem with those models is that the balance in the sacrifice includes the quality of the education provided to the students.  And over the long haul, those are characteristics of the schools which are closing. 

It's time for a prophetic voice, and a vision.