Thursday, March 20, 2014

What We Didn't Do

We just didn't sign our kids up for Catholic high school and it stings. 

We love Catholic School.  We love it.  I joined parish counsel back in 1997 for a three year commitment because I wanted my first born to be a part of the place that became like extended family in the subsequent 17 years.  Everyone I know who works at a Catholic school does so in part out of sheer love of the place, the vocation of teaching, and dedication to seeding the next generation with an adult understanding of their faith and the intellectual tools to thrive.   I have friends, relatives, people who have become as close as relatives, people I respect, who opt to serve in this capacity and they earn every penny ten times over and more.   So not signing up feels almost like a severing of a limb. 

It isn't because we want more for ourselves but because we will have two in college, and Catholic high school in our area now costs as much as if not more than in state tuition with housing and the premier food plan.  In some instances, it costs more than out-of-state tuition at a private 4 year college with housing, transportation, books and food.

Before anyone thinks this is just sour grapes, we've spent many years working to keep our children enrolled, we know the sacrifice involved and we've willingly made it up to this point even when it's been hard because we believe in trying to steep our children in the faith, in giving them an extended family/community that shows them how faith is not an accessory but an integral part of life, the heart of one's life.  This has been a choice, an important choice to us, one we've willingly made, one which required sacrifice which we also willingly gave. 

But the cuts to the budget ran deeper each year.  At first, you could say they were luxuries and some of them were:  Gym membership, mother's day out, pre-school, then they kept coming, the occasional outside help, pizzas from the expensive place, then we started trimming everything, hot lunches, no after school lessons, we tightened, we cut, we trimmed, we stalled.  The cost kept rising, not just because additional children entered the system, but because the cost itself for each increased.  Only making more money kept us able to attend and I had to wonder, how long before people are able to go at all?

When our oldest started high school, 10K for high school seemed high but not insane. By the time our next oldest entered 9th grade (3 years later), it had crept up to starting around 14, but she had a scholarship so the impact was blunted.  When our third entered high school, two years later, it was 16.  Now, she is a sophomore, and the starting point has changed again, to 20.  Twenty thousand a year for a freshman. That's regardless of the school, I checked.  Schools in the area often tout being less expensive in tuition, but then there are the "fees" which don't factor into tuition, but still kick it up.  I'll say 18.5 to 28 is the range in the area. Given the current rate, if I were to guess, by the time my 3 year old is 14, a single year of high school should run about 35 thousand.  (10K in 7 years, plus an additional 4 for the remaining off years when the increase isn't so much).    I did the research, and my kids could take 18 hours at the local community college for 3 thousand.   How is it that this is not cause for serious concern? 

How many more times can any school keep raising tuition before they price themselves out of existence?  Enrollment goes down in hard economic times, and thus to meet the shortfall, tuition is raised, resulting in fewer people being able to apply.    This is a pattern that's been going on since we first entered Catholic School back in the 90's, so we've had the luxury of sitting through or casually hearing about budget talks, through fat and thin times, and when the best we can do is to hold the line, something is wrong with how we are financing schools, something which keeps them dependent upon perpetually increasing the costs.  We will have a bubble in Catholic Education and then a crash if we do not do something differently.

I studied school budgets in graduate school and know how the hands are tied.  The principals must comply with arch diocesan policy, and every staff member and faculty deserves a just salary. I know that budgets are the bane of every school board, every administrator, everyone who ever has to tighten belts in tough times, or make hard decisions about financial aid.  But the system has stayed the same for years, and so the problem has only compounded.  At some point, raising the cost becomes an injustice to those who want to give their children a Catholic education, and at that point, it will feel intractable.    The schools will eventually die if they cannot maintain enrollment, and they will lose enrollment as the schools become more expensive.

Something is wrong here. Very wrong. 

I say it is close to a crisis.  You can't tell me that the material within that education has changed so much in 7 years --from our oldest to our current freshman, as to merit a ten thousand dollar increase across the board. 

Something important that is still there in all of these places, is in danger of being lost in the process.

 High school shouldn't cost more than college. High school, even the best private Catholic high school, is still high school, dealing with 14-18 year olds in large numbers.     We need to do something as a Church and to a parish or Catholic schools will become the purview of only the very rich and those who qualify for financial aid.  Catholic schools ought to be bursting with enrollment, but reflect the whole population and be available to "here comes everybody."  If children are the future of our faith, and Catholic schools part of that instruction and instillation of Catholic faith, then making it possible for families becomes more vital as a part of the mission as teaching reading or algebra or computer research skills.  

I worry, because I'm a hometown believer in Catholic schools, I want my kids there, and it isn't going to happen.  I worry not because my kids are going to lose the faith, but because I see this ongoing problem, and I don't see anyone talking about it, at least not about what can we do differently to change the structure of Catholic school financing to make them less susceptible to closing when times are tight, or sky rocketing in cost.

This isn't a plea for money on a personal or systemic level, it's a proposal that a discussion begin in Catholic circles about Catholic schools and how to sustain them in feast or famine, and such that they serve the whole of the parish in every parish, and don't become simply a mini-ivy league prep camp for four years accessible only to an elite few. 

Again, I love love love love Catholic schools, all of them, elementary, high school and college, I believe in them and want them to thrive. I just think they might not survive if they keep trying to prove their worth by their price tags.  We already know they're invaluable.  We already know what they hold is our great treasure.  We want to place our greatest living treasures in their trust, and admittedly, I want it to be possible for anybody, for everybody and yes, that would include me.  I want Catholic Education to be synonymous with "Universal."   


Marisa said...

We are in the same boat. I would love to send the younger girls to Catholic School, but in an age when our mortgage becomes more difficult to pay each month, and dollars seem to be stretched further than ever before, it is not possible.

When my mom was young, Catholic schools were just about free, at least around here. If you were a Catholic, you usually went to your local Catholic school. Period. But priorities change, the face of education is different, and we lost our nuns. So the education for Catholic children was abandoned.

Until the church determines that Catholic education is necessary for our children, if nothing more than as an investment into the future of the church, I am afraid we are stuck.

priest's wife said...

I'm glad I am happy with how homeschooling is working out because we could never afford private school. I personally don't know anyone with more than 2 children that enroll them in Catholic school (we have 4)

federoff11 said...

In our diocese, the "Catholic" schools are a joke. The abortion rate at the Catholic high school is very disturbing (when I was asked to come in and teach a chastity course, one of the admins pulled me aside and said "DON'T mention abortion. A lot of girls here have had one, and we don't want to make them feel guilt and disrupt class.")

There are no religious teaching there. Perhaps that is (mostly) why school is so expensive… they need to pay lay teachers more than they would nuns and brothers. I get the logic of that.

We homeschool. Always have. (Ironic, because my husband is a public school administrator.) We save up our education money for Franciscan, or Ave Maria, or Thomas Aquinas College, or some other worthy Catholic institution of higher education.

No sense paying for an education that isn't Catholic.

Sherry Antonetti said...

As I said, the schools here have become like family, they are Catholic, it isn't an argument about what they teach or why they teach or how they teach, it's what they cost. We've kept them in places that did three things, 1) protected their spirits/hearts
2) grew their understanding of the world, history, science, math, language and faith and
3) gave them the continuity of a community steeped in faith, living it in all the seasons.

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