Reinventing Catholic Schools

Earlier this month, America Magazine released an article entitled “Reinventing Catholic Schools” by Charles Zech of Villanova University. It is a nice synopsis of the state of American Catholic education from a financial perspective. You can read the article here.

As the leader of a Catholic school, the word of Mr. Zech resonate well but not all entirely. He claims that the “model that supported my education is broken.” He’s referring to the Catholic education of his youth that relied heavily on religious women as cheap labor. It’s true. At Bishop Kelley High School, the tuition on day 1 in September 1960 was $100. This was possible because the school was almost entirely staffed by Christian Brothers and Sisters of Divine Providence. They lived on campus. They cleaned their own classrooms. They worked for cheap.

Time have indeed changed. In 2016, Bishop Kelley High School has one Christian Brother and we haven’t had the Sisters since 1982. Our staff is made up almost entirely of lay men and women. The exception of our one Christian Brother (who earns a regular salary), a diocesan priest (that’s me!) who does not make what a Catholic high school president would typically make but who also doesn’t work for free (I’m paid what all other diocesan priests are paid), and two part time diocesan priests where we pay a small part of their salary.

Zech makes clear that the numbers are going in the wrong direction. Catholic schools are closing. Catholic schools are located where the growth isn’t. Catholics don’t contribute to their parishes as they should. Catholics are having fewer children. Millennial Catholic not not getting married in the Church at the same rate and many are not having their children baptized in the Church. Bad news right? Yes and no.

Our experience in the Diocese of Tulsa, OK does show many of these trends but we’re also a growing local church. Many Catholics ARE interested in sending their children to a Catholic school. Many non-Catholics are similarly interested in sending their children to a Catholic school. We have a growing Hispanic population in which there is growing interest in Catholic schools. In the State of Oklahoma, the public school system is in turmoil with massive funding issues and low morale. While that is sad and not something that any Catholic would think is good, it has increased demand for homeschooling, charter schools, private schools, and Catholic schools like Bishop Kelley. We expect to see a lot of interest from 8th graders and their families who are looking to get out of the public school system.

Oklahoma also has favorable school choice legislation including the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship for special needs students and tuition tax credits which in the Diocese of Tulsa takes the form of GO for Catholic Schools..

Zech is right. “It is time to think outside the box by searching for new models for delivering the kind of education that Catholics have come to know and treasure.” What’s disappointing is that the solution he offers is a system of charter schools replacing parochial schools. That will solve the funding issue but charter schools are not Catholic schools. Yes, they can include some religious education after school but for a Catholic school to be truly Catholic, the church that Christ founded must be front and central. It must be at the center of everything, not an add on at the end of the day. To do so, is to make our beloved Catholic schools just academic institutions with a little faith thrown in, maybe. That’s not the best solution. We can do better than that.





About Rev. Brian O'Brien

Priest of the Diocese of Tulsa and President of Bishop Kelley High School in Tulsa, OK.
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