Last month, the Diocese of Memphis announced it would cease operations of Jubilee Catholic Schools, a network serving more than 1,400 of the city’s disadvantaged students. Jubilee had become financially unsustainable. The diocese didn’t have the money to keep the schools afloat, and the low-income families they served couldn’t pay the tuition necessary to cover the gap.

Although many grieved the loss, those who follow urban Catholic schooling have become mostly inured to such stories. Inner-city Catholic schools have been closing for decades, a consequence of a combination of challenges including changing urban demographics; fewer priests, brothers and nuns; the competition from charter schools; and more.

But the news of Jubilee’s demise was especially poignant. This was not supposed to happen.

A decade ago, President George W. Bush convened the White House Summit on Inner-City Children and Faith-Based Schools, a conference designed to call attention to the continuous loss of nonpublic schools in cities. A subsequent White House report would detail that in the prior six years alone, “the faith-based urban schools sector has suffered a net loss of 1,162 schools and 424,976 students.”

These schools had given families options and were often cornerstones of their neighborhoods. A considerable body of research had shown that Catholic schools in particular seemed to have an unusual ability to help high-need kids. The slow hemorrhage of this sector of schools was a loss for families, communities and, therefore, the nation.

In his speech, President Bush called attention to a number of promising stories showing that the right blend of policies, philanthropy and social entrepreneurialism could help preserve faith-based urban education.

Jubilee was one of these examples.

The president hailed the donors who contributed $15 million to launch and support the network. He noted its public, not just religious, service, pointing out that “81 percent of these children are not Catholic; nearly 96 percent live at or below the poverty level.”

A decade on, the fairy tale – a set of Memphis schools closed for decades then resurrected then shuttered again – reads more like another act in a long tragedy. According to data compiled by the National Catholic Educational Association, half of the nation’s Catholic schools have closed since 1960 (12,893 down to 6,429). Only 508 inner-city elementary Catholic schools remain. National Center for Education Statistics data show that, from 20056 through 20156, faith-based schools in cities lost 115,000 students in enrollment, with losses in the number of city-based Catholic, Conservative Christian and other schools affiliated with a particular faith (though there was an increase in the number of “unaffiliated” religious schools in cities).

We should remember that such longstanding schools are part of their communities’ histories. Many have existed for generations; some for more than a century. They pass on culture and values. If they disappear, our K-12 system’s diversity is diminished, and families lose valuable options. One important recent study found that the closure of longstanding urban Catholic schools actually harms, in terms of a number of social factors, their surrounding neighborhoods.

One response is that this phenomenon, no matter how painful, is simply the market talking: Families are choosing other schools. Advocates, however, counter that the “market” is inequitable. District-run public schools have students assigned to them and receive government funding. Charter schools also receive public dollars. Urban Catholic schools must rely on tuition and donations. When low-income families choose from a range of options, schools that charge are disadvantaged.

Private-school-choice programs like voucher and tax-credit scholarship programs, which provide financial aid that enables some families to afford a nonpublic school, haven’t yet been adopted at a scale to stem the tide of closures. While there is not a conclusive body of research on how these programs influence the supply of private-school options, there is some evidence that the right types of programs in the right conditions might help. For example, Michael McShane has written on this website that strategies related to funding, access to educators and information for families could help existing private schools grow enrollment and promote the creation of new schools.

There remains light on the horizon. After the Jubilee story broke, two of Catholic education’s most energetic leaders, Kathleen Porter-Magee and Stephanie Saroki de Garcia, wrote independently about the implications of news. Though they came to different conclusions about the advisability of replacing the Catholic schools with charters, Porter-Magee and Saroki de Garcia share one important thing: Both lead Catholic-school organizations that didn’t exist at the time of President Bush’s call to action.

They lead novel, entrepreneurial, nonprofit school networks that exist outside of the traditional Catholic school structure. Their organizations (Partnership Schools and
Seton Education Partners), and others like Cristo Rey and the University of Notre Dame’s ACE Academies, are colloquially known as private school management organizations. There’s variation among these networks, but their commonality is key: They are experimenting with key elements of school operations (e.g. management, governance, funding) to find ways to run high-performing, financially sustainable schools. These efforts are being fostered by a range of donors, including the Drexel Fund, a “venture philanthropy” committed to growing successful faith-based and other private schools.

Such innovation is encouraging. But advocates of faith-based schooling and urban educational options must be clear-eyed. George W. Bush wasn’t the first president to call attention to this problem. In 1970, President Richard Nixon created the “Panel on Nonpublic Education” to study the then-newly recognized threat facing these schools. Its 1972 report issued a stark warning: “The next few years are critical to the future of pluralism in education. Whatever is done must be undertaken with a profound sense of urgency.” The post-summit report issued by the Bush administration cited that language and concluded, “Now, nearly four decades later, with faith-based urban schools imperiled and closing at a rapid rate, the national call for urgency is as resonant as ever.”

A decade later, that risk remains.


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