Book Review: Saving America’s Urban Catholic Schools: A Guide for Donors

Catholic Schools and philanthropy have been mutual beneficiaries of each other throughout history.  A guidebook has been published by the Philanthropic Roundtable on how philanthropists can best support urban Catholic Schools.  This Roundtable is committed to helping donors improve K-12 education in all venues public or religious.  The Roundtable acknowledges the important contribution that Catholic schools have made to the education of the youth in the past and recognizes the economic challenges that inner-city Catholic schools currently face.  The goal of this book is to help guide philanthropic efforts to keep inner-city Catholic schools solvent.

This guidebook gives a unique perspective on Catholic education, its history and the roots of the current economics troubles.  Although the target audience is philanthropists who seek to make a difference in the education of our children, it is worthy reading for any Catholic school board member or administrator who is involved with school finance.

The guidebook begins with a succinct summary of the causes of the economic challenges of the urban Catholic school.  The major causes are identified as declining vocations and shifting demographics.  But others such as aging facilities, calcification of practices, competition with charter schools, consistency, credibility and confusion are also identified.  The guidebook reminds us that Catholic schools pre-date public schools in this country and those Catholic schools have saved the public billions of dollars by educating millions of our children without public assistance.  The quality and impact of Catholic schools is noteworthy and thus philanthropic efforts to preserve them are worth pursuing.

The guidebook highlights six priorities that investors should consider to increase the likelihood that their investments in Catholic schools have long-term consequences.  The first is Funding Private Scholarships – paying the tuition of students in need.  This is the simplest and most common method to helping schools.  The effect is immediate and can be used as a tool for school accountability.

The second priority is creating Performance Driven Schools.  This priority suggests donors find ways to make sure that the schools are offering a quality educational product and are being run in a financially sound way.  Underperforming schools need to change and creative and transparent methods of improving the school income and cost controls must be explored.

The third priority is to Develop and Replicate New School Models to increase the numbers of Catholic schools.  Not only do we need to make existing schools competitive, we also need to find new ways to increase the supply of Catholic schools.  Examples of models worth replicating are the NativityMiguel Network of schools and the Cristo Rey Network.  The history and design of these new models are explained.

The fourth priority is Rethinking Governance.  The guidebook describes the organization of the Church and defines Church terms for philanthropists that are not Catholic.  This includes the difference between parochial schools and schools built by religious orders.  With the increased lay involvement in the function of the schools and the increase work-load of diocesan Priests, new governance structures are being defined.  Private academies and school consortia are considered.  Boards, administrators and clergy must work together in school leadership.

The fifth priority addresses the Human Capital Challenge.  Schools run by lay people with families to support simply cost more to run than schools run by religious.  Inner city schools are especially vulnerable to economic problems since they do not have the tuition base that wealthier suburban schools have.  Notre Dame’s Ace program is highlighted as one innovative way to address the human resource problem.  Finding and developing committed teachers and administrators is critical for the success of Catholic schools.

The sixth priority considered is the need to Change Public Policy.  Not only are Catholic schools now competing with public schools, but they are also competing with charter schools and other private schools.  As more educational choices are given to parents, can school choice and vouchers ever be used for Catholic schools?  There has been success in various places for the use of public money in Catholic schools.  However, public funding of schools must be coupled with quality education and sound financial practices.  Expansion of school choice to include Catholic schools must be a continued focus.

Philanthropists who donate to Catholic Schools run the gamut from devout Catholics to atheists.  Throughout the guidebook, various philanthropic ventures into Catholic education are highlighted – some of which are faith based, many are not.  The goals of the various donors vary – but they are not necessarily incompatible.  A chapter devoted specifically to Catholic identity raises interesting questions as to whether maintaining Catholic identity is necessary or important.  The changing of Catholic schools to charter schools is highlighted with both its advantages and disadvantages.

The guidebook finishes with ten great ideas in need of funding which include:  Charter Conversions, New School Models, Networking with Public schools, Performance-management, Increasing ACE, Public Policy changes, Use of Technology, Use of Incentives, Encouraging Vocations, and Use of Tithing.

This guidebook gives Catholic administrators a unique perspective on school funding.    Inherent in the discussion is whether public or private schools with the “trappings” of Catholic schools (academic excellence, sound morals) are good enough to deliver everything that Catholic schools have provided.  The new players in the field of education (charter schools, etc.) are doing just that.

The guidebook is available through the Philanthropist Roundtable and can be downloaded from their website.


My wife's name is Susan and we have four children born in '86, '90, '95, and '98. I teach/coach and administrate at a Catholic High School. I have been in the education for 26 years, the first 9 in public K-12 system, 5 years at a community college, and the past 13 in a Catholic High School.

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