Four Differences Between Public and Catholic Schools
What accounts for the quality of Catholic Schools? Nationally, this is a question which has been garnering more attention, as educational reformers look to our schools as a means of improving public education. Let me say at the outset that our schools are hardly perfect, and frankly, some of the public school teachers I've known are better than we are. They are often better trained. Still, I believe there are four differences at the structural level that account for the general quality of Catholic schools.
I’d like to begin with an obvious comment, which is also true of all private schools—we must be market-conscious. The reality is if we begin to not do our job, if we are not responsive to the needs of our parents or students, they simply vote with their feet by withdrawing their children, and pretty soon, we don’t have any kids left and our school closes down. Competition is good for us, I believe, and it motivates us to work harder. If the local private school has a better athletic program than we do, does that affect our enrollment? Absolutely, and we better improve. If the other builds a new school building, does that affect us? If the third has National Merit Scholars and we don’t, that hurts us. Again, I think that one of the real dilemmas that public education faces, everywhere, is that if their families do not have the financial wherewithal to leave their school for area private schools, they have very little incentive to improve and they hold an educational monopoly. That can often make them unresponsive to parental concerns.
This theory is, of course, what is behind the move by some to push for vouchers for public education. Vouchers are a means to introduce market variables into the public school equation. I think they’re worthy of at least trying on a limited scale at first, but I am not convinced they are a panacea, because there are two caveats that we must watch out four being a school that is competing in the market place, and which public schools would also have to be wary about:
• The first is there is often a temptation to be focused on the wrong things. Does being “market-driven” force us to spend too much of our educational dollars, as an example, on marketing, using valuable dollars that could otherwise go into the classroom? Using my city in Montgomery, Al as an example, the amount of time, attention and money the area private schools are spending on marketing is becoming almost over the top—it is ridiculously competitive in Montgomery for students, due in part because there are too many schools chasing too few students. I was the United Way rep for private schools in Montgomery two years ago, and I was staggered to learn there were over 35 private schools K-12 or parts of K-12 in Montgomery. On the one hand, you better be good. On the other hand, you better be savvy in marketing—and I worry about this—could we be spending this money more productively on raising teacher salaries? Purchasing classroom supplies? Updating our technology?
• The second caveat is that when you are market driven, there is some pressure to relax standards or to give in where in principle we should not. If a child is struggling academically, one might guess that there is conflict in the home, and where there is no “domestic tranquility” there is often squawking to the school about a particular teacher who is too difficult, or a grading system which is too hard, or a teacher who “doesn’t like my child”. And if the school doesn’t handle these complaints well, pretty soon they begin to lose students—so there is a temptation to give in. I believe this partly explains grade inflation in colleges and universities, as well as in K-12 schools.
These two caveats aside, however, I believe on the whole that being in a competitive market helps create a dynamic for responsiveness and quality which is essential to Catholic school success. For this reason, I would think that vouchers would be a worthwhile experiment to try on a limited basis as a means of improving public education. Florida, for example, gives vouchers to families whose children attend what the Florida Department of Education declares are failing schools, and these families can use that voucher to attend a local private or Catholic school. I have a hard time finding fault with that, unless one wants to argue that the school’s fate, which may close if too many families leave, is more important that the children it is failing to educate.
The organizational principle which characterizes Catholic schools is subsidiarity—This is an idea also stressed in our Catholic social teaching tradition, which emphasizes that “higher” organizations should never usurp the role and responsibility of organizations below it unless the lower organization is unable to accomplish the task. To put it more directly, things are best handled at the lowest level possible. So in the area of politics, Catholic social teaching would argue for limited federal intervention in state affairs, and limited state intervention in local affairs—only to the extent necessary. In the area of schooling, most Catholic diocesan school offices are set up to give broad oversight to schools, to establish broad umbrella policies within which schools work and set local policies, but then to encourage local school boards, principals and faculty to customize their school according to the needs of their various communities. Here’s how that plays out in practical ways:
1. Each individual Catholic school has its own school board which sets policy for local school
2. Each school board sets its own budget, tuition and salary rates (ratified by superintendent)
3. Each principal has relative freedom to interpret policy and implement policy at the school.
4. Monetary decisions are made, consistent with budget, by the local school principal
5. The local board hires/fires principal
6. The principal hires/supervises/fires faculty and staff.
I submit that is a very different organizational structure than is typical of public schools. Typically, public schools have one county or city school board which is responsible for as many as 30-50-100 schools. That school board establishes district policy, which principals then implement. The amount of revenue each school receives is set by the state on a per pupil basis. Budgets are passed for the entire school district by this board, and then the superintendent works with those numbers for each school. Individual principals have very little discretion over how money is spent in their school. I worked with a large public high school (+2000 students) in the metro area, and talked with the principal about what parts of his budget he exercised control over. His budget was over 7 million dollars, but the only piece of it he controlled was the revenue they made from the coke machines at lunch time!
I believe the principal of subsidiarity is a critical component to Catholic schools’ historical success in this country. By way of analogy, from 1,000 feet in the air, every farmer’s crop looks the same---little rectangular patches of farmland. The poor man’s fields look the same as the rich man’s fields. But at ground level, you can see the nuances between them. The wealthier farmer may have an irrigation system that insulates his crops against droughts, and resulting yields are much higher.
Relative to schools, the question is always, what are our greatest needs? Where do we need to spend money and how can we spend it to be most effective? Who should we ask to run this or that program? I have so much more discretion and flexibility to answer that question than my colleague at this large public school had.
I believe there are two very practical effects to subsidiarity, both of which turn out to be critical to schools' success:
1. Schools end up spending money more efficiently. Because public schools are so highly centralized, they have comparatively large central offices. There was a 2002 study which studied the organizational structures of several large public school systems and the three largest Catholic school systems in the country. The differences are staggering. New York public schools employed 2311 central office personnel per 100,000 students. Los Angeles public schools employed 1646 personnel per 100K. Chicago employed 983 personnel. By contrast, the New York archdiocese employed just NINE central office workers per 100K, whereas the Chicago archdiocese had 19 and LA had 24. New York public schools employ 256 times as many central office staff as New York Catholic schools per 100,000 students. Not surprisingly, then, the average per pupil expenditure in Catholic schools are typically MUCH less than in public schools. In the New York comparison, even after subtracting the government funded special programs and compensatory programs for children in poverty, bilingual education for non-English speakers, special programs for various categories of disability, the costs of transportation and the cost of food services, the average per child expenditure for Catholic schools was 46.8 % of the public school costs.
Our budgets are created at each local school, by a local school Council. We’re able to target that money to the point it is most needed on an annual basis. Circumstances sometimes change, and because budget decisions are made at the local level, we’re able to respond to changing circumstances quickly. In the long run, that allows us flexibility that highly centralized systems don’t have, and allows us to spend our money well.
2. Second, and this may even be more critical than the money—subsidiarity encourages direct parental involvement in the school. In our school, for example, our local board is made up of parents in the school. Our parents have the ability to set school policy. Our parents have the ability, therefore, to set tuition rates, create salary charts for our teachers, and create and pass the budgets. When you give parents real authority, you get involvement and you get ownership. I often hear public school advocates moan about the lack of community ownership, the lack of parental interest, in their schools. But I believe this is partly bred by the fact that if you are a parent at that school, you have very little power to effect change. You must go before a district board that runs 30-50-100 schools, and they often don’t have time or the inclination to get into nuances that may affect one segment of one school among the many they serve.
C. A Common Mission
One of the greatest blessings we have as a Catholic school, different, even, from private schools, is that our essential mission is a given, a non-negotiable, and this allows us a certain amount of freedom that some schools don’t enjoy. The mission of every Catholic school in America is to help children develop as faithful, educated people, helping them develop an integrated world view of faith and academics. To put it directly, our job is produce well educated, happy and holy children, and there are established philosophies, practices and doctrines that are defined by our Church as pivotal ways to do this. We don’t have to worry about questions that often tear other schools apart, like whether or not to teach about evolution, or safe sex—these are settled questions in Catholic doctrine/morality (we can and we can’t, BTW). We don’t have to spend an enormous amount of money on vocational programs, trying to be all things to all people, because our high school mission (and name) says we’re a college preparatory program. In an increasingly pluralistic society, it’s increasingly hard for other schools to define a mission specifically enough where it can weed out good ideas from bad ideas—this clearly plagues universities, which offer everything from degrees in Physics to degrees in the circus, literally.
D. Legal structures
Private/Catholic schools and public schools operate under different legal parameters. Public schools are essentially controlled by constitutional law. In Catholic schools, teachers and administrators function “in loco parentis”, in the place of parents, which gives us much more freedom in our handling of kids. We operate not out of “constitutional law” parameters by through “contract law”, which means we must spell out policies in our student handbooks and then follow those policies very carefully. Should we get into a lawsuit, the ultimate question will be “Is the school following the rules it layed down and spelled out to all?” If yes, by the voluntary participation in that school, a family agrees to those rules and must abide by them. If we haven’t followed our own rules, then we’re in trouble.
What I personally believe, and the way we’ve tried to run our school, is that schools need to have maximum flexibility to do what it needs to do to help kids become the kind of people God wants them to be, so if we’re smart, we’re not going to define things too specifically in our policy handbook. In our public schools here in town, there is a disciplinary handbook that defines punishment depending on the type of offense, and there are level one, level 2, level 3 offenses with a certain punishment assigned for each offense. When I was much younger, I used to think this is the way we should run our school. Before I was a principal, I was critical of our previous principal because he didn't do it that way. Once, two students were caught doing the same thing wrong—something like cursing at the teacher. In one case, the principal gave the young man a 3 day out of school suspension. In the other case, he gave the young man a long list of summer projects in the early summer—weeding flower beds, dusting tops of fans. I thought that was unjust and unfair.
So, when I became principal, I vowed to be "fair". I created my own "disciplinary handbook" to help me mete out justice blindly., After three months, however, I tore up the handbook and threw it away, because it was forcing me to do things to students that I KNEW were ineffective for particular students.
Instead, I have come to realize that my ability to discipline kids is only limited by my imagination to help them get the message—I’ve had kids do volunteer work in the community, wax the school bus in my neighborhood, yes, the tried and true practice from the nuns of scraping gum from under tables, washing blackboards, picking up paper in the parking lot, shoveling gravel rock into school pathways….anything to help them take responsibility for themselves and their actions. Doesn’t mean we won’t suspend kids, if I think that is effective. Just means there is very little that merits automatic consequences. My mission as school disciplinarian is not to mete out justice, but to shape lives and do what is most effective, a child at a time, to affect that.
Shortly thereafter I wrote a brief parable which was autobiographical:
And it so happened that a new principal, wishing to make a good impression, said:
“I will treat all students the same for fairness sake”.
Shortly thereafter, two students were sent to the principal for the same disciplinary infraction. The principal said: “Policy dictates each of you receive a 3 day out of school suspension”.
The first young man, working closely with his parents, came back to school with a resolve to do better. The second young man dropped out of school.
And everyone agreed the principal was fair”.
What I have come to understand is that the essential ingredient needed for school success is the ability to do whatever I need to do for each individual child to help them grow into the people God wants them to be. In other words, an essential ingredient to a school is the ability of the school to love its students.
I do not suggest for a second that public school teachers don’t love their students—I think the good ones, like our good ones, really DO love the kids. But they are institutionally hamstrung by a legal structure that FORCES them to treat kids essentially the same, in ways that will meet constitutional and legal scrutiny. We are able, in contrast, to craft school policies in such a way that builds in flexibility. Here’s the sum of what our student policy handbook says about discipline:
“Disciplinary action will be taken with students who intentionally disregard policies and regulations”
I have left it deliberately vague so that I have maximum flexibility as a principal to do whatever I need to do for that student.
So, in summary, I believe there are four areas in which Catholic schools, and I am guessing some private schools, are able to insure quality:
• Being market driven, which forces us to be responsive to our student and parents’ needs
• Following the principle of subsidiarity, which allows local schools to have real authority for themselves, and set school policies and create budgets to meet their specific needs, and which also encourages parental involvement in the school.
• Having a non-negotiable mission, which allows us to be selective in how we use our resources
• Being able to operate within a legal structure that allows us maximum flexibility, which I claim is a necessary component in handling each student with love. As with all of us, what we ultimately need is love.