He visited campus in December and delivered and engaging talk to JSerra’s senior class. And this week, former presidential speechwriter William McGurn focused his Wall Street Journal “Main Street” column on the rise of JSerra and St. Anne as a new model for providing outstanding Catholic education.
Here is the column:
Tim Busch has an answer to the epidemic of closing Catholic schools. And it has nothing to do with vouchers.
It couldn’t come at a more critical moment. Over the next few days, nearly 2.2 million students and their families will celebrate Catholic Schools Week. Though the Catholic school system remains America’s largest alternative to public education, the number of both schools and students is roughly half what they were at their peak in the mid-1960s. According to the National Catholic Education Association, the trend continued last year, with 162 Catholic schools consolidating or closing against only 31 new openings.
Amid the gloom Mr. Busch offers a prescription for revival: End the financial dependence on parish or diocese. Build attractive facilities. And compete for students.
If that sounds like a business formula, it is. Mr. Busch is a good friend I came to know through Legatus, an association of Catholic CEOs. Spend any time around him, and you’ll find he believes that America needs Catholic schools more than ever, and that they can compete with the best. To prove it, he’s helped start up two privately run Catholic schools—St. Anne elementary school and JSerra high school, both in southern California.
Now, there are plenty of upscale Catholic schools with waiting lists—especially those run by religious orders. But here’s a fact that gets little mention: a Catholic education is in danger of becoming a luxury for the middle class. It’s hard to be optimistic about the future of Catholic schools in our inner cities if Catholics cannot make a go of these schools in the suburbs, where most Catholics live.
Do the math. In my area of New Jersey, for example, a Catholic high school whose tuition clocks in at $15,000 a year is deemed a bargain. For a family with three or four kids, the total tuition can top $3,000 a month. Young middle-class families struggling with a new mortgage and high property taxes can find themselves squeezed: not wealthy enough to pay, not poor enough for aid.
In Mr. Busch’s case, he says he got the idea for starting up St. Anne after he and his wife went looking for a Catholic school for their first child—and were depressed by the dilapidated facilities they found at many schools. Ultimately he and his partners settled on a model where parents take responsibility for operating the school, with the diocese ensuring the teachings are authentically Catholic. It’s a division of responsibility much in line with Vatican II, freeing up pastors to be pastors while tapping into the financial, legal, and business abilities of lay people.
In some ways, it’s liberating for both. Schools replace lay boards that merely advised a pastor or bishop with lay boards that raise money, build facilities, and actually run the place. The appeal to a bishop is this: We’ll help you provide an authentic Catholic education to more children—and it won’t cost you a dime. For those who complain that such schools serve only the rich, Mr. Busch says that financially stable schools have more wherewithal to offer those in need (even without endowments—the next step—St. Anne and JSerra have more than 10% of their students on financial assistance). He further points out that need is by no means limited to money.
“Some children have wealth,” he says. “But having wealth does not insulate you from problems like divorce, substance abuse, loneliness, a culture saturated in sex, and so on. These kids need the Catholic message as much as everyone.”
Bishop Arthur Serratelli of Paterson, N.J., agrees.
“Catholic education is such a value both see its intrinsic value . . . . We are fortunate that many lay people are committed to this cause—and are helping us ‘think outside the box’ so that Catholic schools will thrive in this new decade and beyond,” he says.
Mr. Busch’s privately run Catholic schools, of course, are not the only new model showing promise.
The 24 Jesuit-based Cristo Rey high schools across the country do a terrific job through an innovative work-study program. The bishop and his flock in Wichita, Kan., embraced a stewardship model that calls upon all parishioners to give 8% of their gross income, which allows the diocese to make all its Catholic schools tuition free. And Catholic universities such as Notre Dame and Boston College are reaching out to help run Catholic elementary and high schools.
“We can’t wait for vouchers, and we can’t look to the old model of relying on our pastors and bishops to come up with the money and answers,” says Mr. Busch. “If we want Catholic schools for our children and our society, we have to adopt new models that let us compete.”