Growing up in a Philadelphia row home neighborhood in the 1950’s and 1960’s, my understanding of schools was based on a simple division between publics and Catholics. From my experience at the time, the publics were largely Jewish and African American. The Catholics were largely Irish and Italian.
The parallel Catholic system in Philadelphia rivaled the public district. At its height, Catholic schools educated more than one third of the city’s school age children. Today that number is less than 10 percent.
Back then, Catholic schools provided a quiet subsidy to the city by educating children who otherwise would have been in the public system, while many Catholic school homeowners paid real estate taxes for a public amenity they chose not to use.
Over the past half-century, Catholic schools in Philadelphia have declined due to changing regional demographics, a dramatic drop in the number of women who become nuns (a traditional pillar of Catholic education), the need to increase tuition, and the increased integration of Catholics into non-Catholic institutions.
The sexual molestation scandals also damaged the Catholic brand (and its finances), although the view of Catholic schools was not affected as significantly as the overall view of the church itself.
The decline of Philadelphia Catholic schools is part of a national trend: In 1960, there were about 13,000 Catholic schools in the United States. The number today is around 7,500. As with other institutions created, in part, as a reaction to discrimination, the decline of anti-Catholic sentiment has also changed the role of the schools and parish system that supported them.
But the decline of Catholic schools in Philadelphia may be coming to an end, or at least slowing down. Interesting changes are afoot. A movement that was so important to building the 19th and early 20th Century city, could make a big contribution once again.
Archdiocesan schools, like the School District of Philadelphia, have traditionally functioned as a monopoly. While some schools linked to Catholic orders (e.g. Jesuits or Christian Brothers) had significant autonomy from the Archdiocese, in general it was a top down system with the hub on the Parkway and the spokes at the parishes.
Monopolies are based, in part, on regulatory advantages that make it difficult for alternatives to emerge or compete. While there are economies of scale in large systems, monopolies can stymie innovation. Moreover they often have trouble responding to external changes, even when a response is in their self-interest.
The Philadelphia School District has had difficulty responding to two waves of competition over the past several decades: affordable suburban housing alternatives and the charter school movement. Both have chipped away at enrollment and changed the political calculus between Harrisburg and Philadelphia.
Nonprofits Faith in the Future and Independence Mission have taken over 32 Catholic schools in Philadelphia. Experiments such as these are happening around the country, but none at this scale.
The Archdiocese had neither the financial capacity nor the incentives to respond to the decline of its Philadelphia schools. As a regional body it followed Catholic demography, resulting in new Catholic schools in the high growth suburbs and closed schools in the city and inner ring suburbs.
Financially and politically, it was hard for the Archdiocese to see another way out. There were new announcements every few years about Catholic school closings.
But this began to change in the wake of the Archdiocese Blue Ribbon Commission report in 2012. Catholic civic and business leaders, alumni and philanthropists, had enough. It was one thing to more rationally manage decline, but they wanted stronger management, more autonomy, and targeted efforts at growth.
Since that time, Philadelphia has been at the center of an enormous experiment to re-think Catholic school management. And while it is much too early to know if it will succeed, there are some encouraging signs.
Two nonprofits—Independence Mission Schools and Faith in the Future—developed agreements to run a number of the schools that were formerly Archdiocesan-controlled. Faith in the Future runs 17 Catholic high schools throughout the region and Independence Mission runs 15 elementary and middle schools in the city.
The two organizations are managing educational functions, not just raising money. They are reinventing the schools in everything from how principals are chosen to how physical assets are maintained. Moreover, they are actively marketing the schools, in ways that had not been done previously.
The two new entities are management organizations akin to large charter management organizations like Mastery or Young Scholars. They run multiple schools and centralize core functions. Just as the District outsources management to charters, the Archdiocese does the same with the two nonprofits.
I first met several of the leaders of Independence Mission Schools when I visited Saint Martin de Porres at 23rd and Lehigh in North Philadelphia in 2011. This is a school I might have expected to close: almost all of their students are non-Catholic and all require financial assistance. But today the enrollment is growing, it has strong academic performance, and runs at a fraction of district or charter school costs on a per pupil basis.
If Independence Mission is able to build a sustainable school model based on a combination of private fundraising, low tuition costs, and state tax credits this will be an important turning point for inner city Catholic schools.
When Independence Mission successfully bid on the purchase of the Harrison public school building (which the District closed) to expand the footprint of the St. Malachy parish school in North Philadelphia, the news shocked many observers who were used to Catholic closures and not expansions.
Presently 65 percent of Independence Mission School’s 4,700 children (up from 3,800 a few years ago) are not Catholic and all of the students receive some form of financial tuition and free lunch. (Full disclosure: I once helped Independence Mission obtain a small planning grant from the William Penn Foundation and I managed a retreat for their board of trustees).
Experiments such as Faith in the Future and Independence Mission are happening around the country, but none at this scale. A few Catholic schools around the nation have tried charter school conversions and others have looked at nonprofit management models.
There is a large body of evidence (since at least the early 1980’s) that has pointed to the success of Catholic schools in overall education achievement, and in the education of lower income and minority students. Keeping and expanding the schools is a huge win for many low and modest income families.
But there is something else at work here that is worth considering. Efforts such as Independence Mission Schools teach us something both about how institutions can be reframed and thus point out new possibilities for others.
The great development economist, Albert Hirschman wrote a book a half century ago called Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. His thesis was simple: When institutions, nations, or businesses decline people make decisions to either leave (exit) or try to fix them (voice). In various circumstances (including the influence of loyalty) Hirschman talked about why people make one choice or the other and what this means for social and economic growth.
The decline of the Catholic schools is an interesting case of exit and voice. The attempt to fix the schools is the exercise of voice. Leaders with the choice to exit are driving much of this potential revival.
Think of the exit, voice, and loyalty issue for many middle class parents in Philadelphia. They are faced with leaving the city if they cannot find the right district or charter schools for their children. Most of them cannot afford the hefty tuition at the prominent private schools in the city.
They can leave. Which the numbers still show is happening at a significant rate. Remember, we are gaining young people without children, but losing a similar number of adults with school age children, according to the data.
Or they can invent alternatives either within the existing system or outside of it. Will parents that do not want to use the public system or Catholic schools, but cannot afford a $25,000 per child private school, eventually invent a lower tuition model such as Independence Mission? It is possible and a revitalized Catholic sector may help point the way.
We need these new experiments in urban Catholic schools to work and we need more of them—just as we need high performing district and charter schools. And we may need additional, lower cost private schools if we are unable to make improvements to the public systems. If the city is going to turn the corner, a diversity of school options can no longer be viewed as a zero sum game.