Catholic Schools Are Back, and There’s Hope for Their Future

by Andy Smarick

Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church, Newport Beach.

During his time in the United States, Pope Francis will make a quiet stop at East Harlem’s Our Lady Queen of Angels. His visit to this humble, 120-year-old elementary school, which to this day educates an overwhelmingly low-income and minority student body, underscores the Catholic Church’s centuries-long commitment to the disadvantaged. But it will also shine light on an unreported good-news story in urban education: the budding renaissance of Catholic schools.

For 50 years, inner-city Catholic schools have been shuttering, victims of shifting city demographics, changes in the workforce, the advent of charter schooling, and much more. Impoverished families have too few accessible school options to begin with, but this phenomenon has been especially painful. A substantial body of evidence shows that Catholic schools have an unusual ability to help underserved kids succeed. Newer research suggests that longstanding urban Catholic schools foster social capital outside their walls, helping decrease crime and other societal ills.

In the early 1970s, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, at the time a White House adviser, saw the crisis looming and warned President Nixon about the tragic consequences if these schools disappeared. Little was done, and, so as a White House aide 35 years later, I was part of an effort to re-sound the alarm, organizing a White House summit and authoring a report on the threat to urban faith-based schools.

The prognosis then was gloomy. It looked as if divine intervention would be required. But less than a decade later, it appears that America’s miracle-worker, civil society, is coming to the rescue. Thanks largely to the energy of social entrepreneurs, the generosity of donors, and — counterintuitively — the lessons of charter schooling, urban Catholic education may be on the rebound.

In hindsight, it’s becoming clear that Catholic education’s foundational virtue, steady adherence to venerable principles and practices, was also holding it back. Yes, it was right to steadfastly serve the underserved, stubbornly believe in every child, set the highest standards, and teach character. But many of its approaches to staffing, leading, organizing, governing, and funding its schools had become anachronistic. A refresh was desperately needed.

Like the European Renaissance, this rebirth blends the old and the new. There are new networks of Catholic schools modeled after successful charter management organizations (think Catholic versions of the Knowledge Is Power Program). There are Notre Dame’s ACE program, often called the “Catholic Teach for America,” and other new pipelines of teachers and leaders. There are new tech-driven school models using virtual and “blended” strategies for instruction. There are innovative approaches to financing, including the Drexel Fund (the first-ever venture philanthropy fund for Catholic and other private schools) and Cristo Rey’s work-study program, which sends high-schoolers into offices one day a week.
Though many of these innovations put some distance between schools and the old parish- and diocesan-based systems that used to control them, they are dedicated to preserving the authenticity of Catholic education.
So on Friday, Pope Francis won’t simply be touring a high-performing high-poverty school that’s been part of Harlem’s social fabric for a century. Our Lady Queen of Angels is also part of Partnership Schools, one of the nation’s new independent Catholic-school networks. The Parnership’s superintendent isn’t just a former Catholic-school student and teacher; she was also an executive of one of the nation’s best charter-school organizations. The network’s board includes representatives from the New York archdiocese as well as business and philanthropic leaders.
There’s more reason for optimism about the future of Catholic education than at any time in the last half century. Those hoping to learn more might find worthwhile my guidebook for Catholic-school donors to be published soon by The Philanthropy Roundtable (excerpted here).

But for those interested in K–12 education more broadly, there’s also an important lesson to be learned. The revitalization of this sector of schools is modern-day barn-raising. It’s a quiet triumph of civil society — collective action with public benefits but absent centralized government direction.

Through the loosely coordinated collaboration of parents, educators, faith leaders, social entrepreneurs, colleges, and philanthropists, an organic movement has developed. It’s growing sturdier while evolving to meet an array of needs in a variety of locations.
This is precisely how education reform was described ten years ago. But because of the field’s growing technocratic tendency — the view that brainy central administrators know best — it’s increasingly seen by many as top-down. Indeed, Washington has inserted itself into accountability, standards, tests, teacher evaluations, and more. The backlash is building.

It is highly instructive that a famously hierarchical organization, the Catholic Church, has made substantial progress of late with its schools by protecting its principles but devolving power to civil society. The next administration should take note.

Andy Smarick is a partner at Bellwether Education Partners and coauthor of the forthcoming Catholic School Renaissance. He served at the White House and U.S. Department of Education under President George W. Bush. He is a member of the Maryland State Board of Education.

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