Donors Take the Wheel at Catholic Schools
It seems like every day I hear about philanthropists and celebrities making generous contributions to charter schools. John Legend, for example, sits on the board of Harlem Village Academies, the same network of schools to which Rupert Murdoch gave a $500,000 gift last May.
However, many people do not realize that a similar amount of private support also occurs in Catholic schools. Although celebrities aren’t hosting these schools’ fundraisers, behind the scenes, donors are providing somewhere between $15 million and $20 million annually to Catholic schools in New York alone. Unlike charter schools, which receive a plethora of state funding, private donations often keep Catholic schools afloat.
Last year, I wrote a post about the Patrons Program, an organization that I work for in New York City. Now coined the “Partnership for Inner-City Education” after merging with The Endowment for Inner-City Education, this unique organization runs an adopt-a-school program for 24 inner-city Catholic schools in New York. By joining donors with schools, the Partnership facilitates systematic change in their schools – improving their academic profiles, professionalism and extracurricular programs.
The Partnership was recently featured in a New York Times article that discussed the increase in accountability that donors require when making investments in Catholic schools.
It is an interesting concept, giving donors a voice in decision making at these educational institutions. While some school administrators, not to mention the church bureaucracy, express discomfort with the idea, when it comes down to it, these schools cannot operate if donors pull their contributions.
Declining enrollment and financial duress caused the Archdiocese of New York to close 27 schools (one tenth of their total) as of this June. Thus it is understandable why donors would not want to pour money into schools that might not make the cut. Instead of blindly donating money, they are examining their schools’ budgets, staffs, and programs to ensure that their investments are sound.
Francis J. Butler, president of Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities, a national network of Catholic philanthropies, has noticed this change. “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. However, today he sees that donors “are concerned about the quality of the schools, the leadership; they’re drilling down into these problems.”
Working at St. Joseph School, a Partnership school, I have noticed this as well. Our Advisory Board is involved in every aspect of strategic planning, from creating our budget, to analyzing our test scores. It is not a relationship in which donors visit the school, see smiling children and write a check.
However, these changes do not come without tension. It can be hard for a school administrator to let businessmen and women take the wheel. According to the New York Times, a former principal at Our Lady Queen of Angels in the Bronx feels that he was replaced because of a benefactor’s urgings. These urgings stemmed from the fact that the school’s test scores were stagnant. Mr. Pito described the relationship between schools and donors as “a bit of a Faustian bargain.”
“I had these guys walk through the building once and tell me, ‘Get rid of this teacher,’” he said. “I mean, maybe they mean well, but they’re from another world.”
Although getting donors and school administrators to find common ground and make joint decisions may be a struggle, in the end I believe it will further the mission of the Catholic Church and schools – to educate the poor. While a school is a unique business, it is certainly a business. This is especially true in private schools, who charge tuition for their product.
As patron Russ Carson noted “There are inefficiencies in the system, and you cannot have that — the market won’t pay for it. To get people to enroll their kids, you have to have excellent schools.”
I am hopeful that this trend of increased donor involvement will elevate inner-city Catholic schools to achieve excellence.
Photo credit: FEMA Photo Library