Catholic schools are worth every dime

By Bob Voboril, Superintendent of Schools
Summer, more than any other time of the year, is when I hear screams of agony about the cost of Catholic schools. The fiscal year has ended. Expensive repairs are being made. Pastors already know the biggest expense for the next school year: salaries and high school support.
As the one with the financial responsibility for the three diocesan high schools, I share every groan that comes from the heart of a pastor. There are no two ways about it, Catholic schools are expensive.
Sometimes the pressure gets so great that the Catholic school becomes only a cost. A very dedicated pastor once said to me, “Sometimes I think of each high school student only as an expense.” Outside of our diocese, most parishes provide little support for Catholic high schools. A large parish in the Midwest with an excellent school recently completed a strategic plan. As I searched through the plan, I found only one reference to the school, and it was a budgeting reference. Shortsighted? Yes, but I sympathize.
Nor is this anything new. When I was a new Catholic school teacher in 1972, my starting salary was $5,900, and when I became a principal/grade 7-8 teacher three years later, my salary climbed all the way up to $6,200. Catholic school finances are not for the faint of heart.
Globally, there have been two major efforts to address the problem of school cost. The first was to close schools. The second was to make the parents pay most of the cost. Both efforts failed.
In the 1970s and 1980s schools were closed so that the money could be diverted to other important works of the church. Father Charles W. Regan of Wichita, who would later be named monsignor, warned against robbing Peter to pay Paul. He said at a press conference in 1965, “I am convinced that dropping grades or closing schools will plunge us into a disaster from which we will not recover in our lifetime.”
He was right. Mass attendance plummeted. Parish involvement declined. Parish finances dried up. The number of priests, sisters, and seminarians dropped dramatically. In a time of rapid change when society needed more students with a moral compass, the church produced fewer.
Recent years have seen a second approach. Dioceses are utilizing a model that replaces parish support with tuition as the primary source of funding. The results are also obvious.
In the last 25 years – roughly my time as a superintendent – Catholic school enrollment in the U.S. has dropped by 700,000 and 1,300 more schools have closed then opened. As tuition goes up, enrollment goes down, and the trends listed above continue.
Thankfully, the Diocese of Wichita went against the national trend. Instead of putting the financial burden on families when their children are the youngest and their pocketbooks the lightest, the parishes of our diocese agreed to shoulder the financial burden. Instead of bragging about being college prep, we opened our doors to all active Catholics. Our brand became “Catholic first…” and our mission is to form disciples.
Consider the remarkable fruit of our parish-based system. Mass attendance in our diocese is twice the national average. Average Sunday giving is about four times the national average. Our schools have 50 alums studying to be priests, brothers, or sisters. School attendance defies national trends and remains steady. Our Catholic schools are considered a national model for Catholic culture.
Even with our overriding focus on mission and discipleship, our Catholic schools are still respected for superior academic performance. ACT test scores are a full two points above the state average. More than twice as many high school seniors graduate from college than the state or national average. State assessment results, especially for low income and minority youth, far exceed the state average. The Catholic school focus on personal relationships, stewardship, and the whole person produces true scholars who make a difference in this world and give glory to God by the lives they live.
Let’s not kid ourselves, however. Catholic schools continue to be an expensive investment requiring on average, 70 percent of parish income, or about $40 million a year in the Diocese of Wichita. In comparison, the State of Kansas also commits 70 percent of its revenue to education.
Yet Catholic school leaders still struggle to pay competitive salaries and staff schools adequately. This is not a problem that is ever going to go away.
Nevertheless, it is worth it. Because beyond the financial challenge and the personnel nightmares, Catholic schools remain the best way to form adult Catholics. There is simply no replacement for 35 hours a week spent in the shadow of the church.
Catholic schools are the best way to engage families. Catholic schools give parishes a noble mission. Catholic school graduates are far more likely to attend Mass weekly, marry in the church, stay in the church, come back to the church, support the church, and work for the church. Jesus meant it when he gave the church the Great Commission: “Go and Teach.”
On Sept. 7, 1972, Father Arthur Busch penned an editorial in The Catholic Advance entitled “Never Been Finer.” Father Busch praised his education in a two-room Catholic school in Chase, and how its four graduates were successful at Chase High School and beyond. Father Busch summed up his article with these words: “Catholic schools are worth every dime we spend on them.”
I know that in my 45 years as a Catholic educator I have never been as proud of any work I have done as I am of the Catholic school system of the diocese and the pastors, educators, and families who make it possible. The financial headaches are real, but Father Busch was right: our Catholic schools are worth every dime we spend on them.