(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)
I have been participating in a series of conversations about the future of Catholic schools, in part because Arizona’s tax credit system has helped Catholic schools defy a national trend towards closures. During a recent discussion, the point was made that waves of Catholic immigrants opened schools during the 19th Century, but the current Hispanic wave is not replicating this trend. This got me to thinking “Why not?”
Part of the reason: finances. The religious orders from which the Catholic schools of old drew for faculty have declined in numbers. The low-cost part of a low-cost/high quality education has steadily eroded.
Catholic schools generally have the basics down for success a strong culture controlled by the staff focused on academics, active opt-in required by parents. Suburbanization and the decline in participation in religious orders have thrown Catholic schools into a spiral of decline nationally. The advent of charter schools threatens to deliver the coup de grace for inner city Catholic schools, many of which have served as the only high quality schooling option in their neighborhoods for decades.
Today’s Catholic immigrants don’t face the same type of religious discrimination faced by their 19th Century forerunners, but let’s face it, they are getting the short end of the public schooling stick more often than not. Earlier I had written about the possibility of creating high quality/low-cost private schools in which content is partially delivered through technology. So could this come in the form of Catholic schools version 2.0?
A little snooping around on google revealed that people are way ahead of me. Go here for a link to a Virtual Catholic school effort aimed at both Catholic homeschoolers and supplementing the effort of existing Catholic schools. They even mention a “Clicks and Bricks” solution on the page.
Began in 2009 in Florida (of course) the project’s first release explained:
“Our core mission is to partner with existing Catholic schools so that they can extend their reach, and broaden their curriculum offerings without the added expense of staffing high end, small class loads. We offer a cost effective alternative for small, advanced classes, summer school programs, credit recovery, hospital-homebound programs, and many other options, saving schools the expense of running their own costly programs in the traditional manner. Students may sign up for individual classes, or schools may enroll entire classes or grade levels of students with us.”
Can technology and programs such as the Alliance for Catholic Education at Notre Dame and elsewhere replace the religious orders in the cost structure of Catholic schools? How far can innovative school models such as Cristo Rey go if they successfully substitute technology for labor to lower costs? What does the staffing stucture look like for a hybrid school, and what is the optimal mix of personal instruction and technology? On the revenue side, can states with significant and growing tax credit programs provide the seed capital to spur this type of innovation? Moreover, could a Spanish/English online Catholic school hybrid model (clicks and mortar) lead to a revival of the high quality/low-cost Catholic schooling in both the United States and Latin America?
I honestly don’t know the answer to these questions, but I do know that there is both a revenue and a cost side to providing K-12 options to disadvantaged children. If Catholic schools reboot, they might not only survive, they just might prosper. I’m anxious to see what happens next.