Private philanthropists have changed the face of public education over the last decade, underwriting the rise of charter schools and promoting remedies that rely heavily on student testing and teacher evaluation.
But with much less fanfare, wealthy donors have begun playing a parallel role in the country’s next-largest educational network: Roman Catholic schools.
In New York — as in Boston, Baltimore and Chicago — shrinking enrollment and rising school deficits in recent years have deepened the church’s dependence on its cadres of longtime benefactors. Donors have responded generously, but many who were once content to write checks and attend student pageants are now asking to see school budgets, student reading scores and principals’ job evaluations.
In the jargon of education reform, they want transparency and accountability; and though the church bureaucracy has resisted similar demands from other constituents in the past, the donors are getting pretty much what they want.
To the delight of some educators and the discomfort of others, major contributors have won a voice in decision-making at every level, from the staffing of the schools to the frank financial self-examination that has nudged the Archdiocese of New York toward the most severe school consolidation in its history. Church officials announced last month that falling enrollments and rising deficits would force them to close 27 schools, one-tenth of their total, by the end of this academic year.
“The relationship between the church and its contributors used to be basically, ‘Pray, pay and obey — give us money, we’ll take it from there,’ ” said Francis J. Butler, president of Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities, a national network of Catholic philanthropies. “But donors are much more proactive today. They are concerned about the quality of the schools, the leadership; they’re drilling down into these problems.”
At Our Lady Queen of Angels School in East Harlem, a Wall Street financier, Charles B. Durkin Jr., and a small group of fellow benefactors have donated a total of roughly $100,000 a year for about 15 years. Until about five years ago, the extent of their involvement was to visit several times each year and shake hands with grateful children, as Mr. Durkin, 72, did one recent morning.
Yet the next day, Mr. Durkin followed up with a long working meeting, poring over test scores and talking with the principal about the progress she was making with the students. When they were done, the two agreed that teachers might need some coaching in math instruction — and Mr. Durkin agreed to pay for it.
Historically, parochial schools have fared slightly better in standardized tests than public schools, partly because as private institutions they are not bound by law to take all comers, as public schools are.
But the effort to bring charter-school standards of accountability to a system once dominated by parish priests and their staffs has created some tensions between patrons and school administrators. At one school in the Bronx, a principal wanted to spend a donor’s money on a gym, which he considered crucial to attracting new students, while the donor wanted to stock a new library. The school got the library, but closed soon afterward because of declining enrollment.
Standardized testing, Common Core, benchmarks, data points, SMART goals and all the other jive ass corporate stuff brought to the public schools now coming to the Catholic schools.
I wonder what George Carlin would say about this?