The Folly of Public/Parochial Comparisons

Editor’s Note: The School Administrator invited two superintendents of Catholic diocesan schools who worked previously as public school superintendents to react to Peter Holland’s discussion of the differences between public and parochial schools. Their commentaries follow.

Comparing public and Catholic schools is a pointless exercise since they operate under very different sets of constraints.

Public and Catholic schools have quite different systems of governance, and the methods of financing the schools vary considerably. Even though Catholic schools tend not to be very selective in their admission of students, they have the authority to limit admission and to dismiss students who fail to meet the academic and social standards of the institution.

Other areas of difference include the mandate of public schools to serve the special needs of students, the widespread and pervasive influence of teacher unions in public schools, and the impact of school board and municipal government politics on the performance of public school systems.

Some of these differences deserve to be examined in more detail. The governance structures of public and Catholic schools reflect their public and private natures. Public school boards typically meet every second week, and usually weekly during budget season. In most cases, this amounts to 20 to 25 meetings per year. Many Catholic school boards meet monthly and some, including those on which I have served, meet as few as three times a year. Superintendents know how much time it takes to prepare for, conduct, and then follow through on actions of board meetings. The difference in board time is substantial, and allows Catholic school administrators to spend more time with students, teachers and parents.

Consensus Building

Catholic schools also enjoy greater consensus among students, teachers, and parents on the purposes of schooling and their vision and values. Since parents and students choose them, Catholic schools draw on a positive reservoir of student attitudes and commitment to the programs, and high levels of parental involvement.

Founded by religious orders or dioceses, Catholic schools transmit clear statements of purpose and guiding principles. If students and parents do not agree with the vision and values of a Catholic school, they are free to find another school that meets their needs. Likewise, Catholic schools do not have to serve all students in their catchment area even if they are Catholic. For administrators, Catholic schools provide more discretion in areas such as developing curriculum, hiring and retaining faculty, maintaining facilities and managing finances.

Public schools, on the other hand, work hard to create such consensus on the purposes of the school, but the task is considerably more difficult because of the plurality of interests to be served and the requirement of open admissions. The multiple interests which public schools must serve include a broad spectrum of parental perspectives, the concerns of teacher unions, and a wide range of student skills and interests. The time and effort spent in creating a shared vision in public schools diverts administrators' energy away from a focus on an academic core curriculum.

The financing of public and Catholic schools is also quite different. For a public school superintendent, the budget process consumes the entire year. From preliminary planning in the spring to detailed forecasts and reviewing requests in the fall, the budget season typically reaches a crescendo from January through March with weekly board meetings. The school budget needs to pass review by the school board, the finance committee, the city council or board of selectmen, and finally the town meeting or a comparable body.

Catholic schools are largely tuition-driven, which means that the principal and other administrators must recruit students, meet with parents, market the school, and explain its value to parents who pay for the service. While the budget process in Catholic schools is considerably more straightforward, the process of obtaining funding in Catholic schools is more market driven and the schools must satisfy the needs of consumers. Many Catholic schools regularly face an uncertain financial future, and this fact tends to reinforce their entrepreneurial spirit and their willingness to meet the needs of students and parents.

Admission Practices

Yet another major difference involves the selection and retention of students. The basis for the difference in admissions is that students have a constitutional right to attend public schools, but may attend Catholic and other private schools as a matter of contract law. This is a significant difference.

Although most Catholic schools are not selective and accept virtually all the students who apply, these schools nonetheless have the right to deny admission based on criteria and standards established in their handbooks. The fact that principals in Catholic schools have the authority to dismiss students, usually without board approval, serves as an important reinforcement for academic achievement and appropriate social behavior. Catholic schools dismiss relatively few students, but they can do this by following due process and their written procedures. There is no constitutional right to attend Catholic schools.

Unlike public schools, Catholic schools are not required to admit and provide programs for special needs or bilingual students. In some districts in Massachusetts, for example, up to 25 percent of the students are classified as special needs and a similar proportion of the local school budget is designated for special-needs programs.

Although some Catholic schools admit such students and provide programs for them, they are not bound by the state and federal regulations for such programs. Administering special-needs programs requires a substantial outlay of time and funding, and because of resource constraints and their philosophy, Catholic schools have been much slower than public schools to embrace inclusion of students with disabilities in regular classrooms.

Political Realities

Teacher unions exert an influence on public schools that is largely absent from Catholic schools. Although some diocesan schools have unions and conduct collective bargaining for salaries and other contract changes, this is not the norm for Catholic schools.

Public school superintendents and principals devote an enormous amount of time and energy to collective bargaining, grievance resolution, and nurturing relationships with the bargaining unions. The district of Belmont, for example, has six employee bargaining units. In addition to the demands on administrators' time, unions sometimes work at cross purposes with administrators on issues such as personnel deployment and performance evaluations, consensus on the purposes of schooling, and an emphasis on the delivery of services to students.

Despite unions' clear benefits for teachers, superintendents often regard them as disruptive to the focus on serving students. Catholic schools do not generally contend with these forces.

The politics of boards and municipal governments provide still another issue that public school superintendents and administrators must negotiate. Though superintendents may demur, their role is inherently political as well as educational. Superintendents are engaged in forging public opinion and public policy regarding schools, and this thrusts them into the political spotlight. For the most part, Catholic school administrators can avoid these time-consuming distractions.

Cautious Comparisons

At a recent invitational conference on the future of Catholic schooling held at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., the major discussions focused on the Catholic character of the schools, financial support, and public policy issues. Notably, the conference began and concluded with the notion that Catholic schools, which enroll about 5 percent of the school-age population, are best viewed as part of the nation’s overall educational program.

From this perspective, Catholic schools are viewed most usefully as a complement to, rather than a competitor of, public schools.

As complements, Catholic schools offer more focused instructional programs with fewer curricular options for students. Catholic schools provide a strong emphasis on socialization based on religion and the mysterious operation of grace for a somewhat less racially and social class-diverse population. Finally, they are less bureaucratic and largely unimpeded by federal and state mandates and regulations.

Drawing comparisons between the two sectors, therefore, is difficult because they operate under such different sets of constraints, Public schools are subject to mandates, such as special education, that are not applicable to Catholic schools. Because public schools must admit all eligible students who apply, they have greater difficulty in gaining consensus with students and parents on a shared vision than do Catholic schools.

Likewise, other major factors such as governance structures, financing, administrative discretion, and union influence on faculty relations have a differential impact on the conduct of the schools. Although both public and Catholic schools work hard to meet the needs of students entrusted to their care, they operate with quite different missions and are subject to different mandates.

Peter Holland is superintendent, Belmont Public Schools, Belmont, Mass.


Striking Similarities Underneath Management
By Robert L. Paserba


With enrollment of 35,000 students in its 115 elementary and 11 high schools, Pittsburgh’s Catholic schools rank fourth in size among the more than 500 school districts and diocesan school systems of Pennsylvania.

Not surprisingly, managing such a system is quite similar to managing a public school district. Our mandates are the same: the proper education of children and young adults. Both public and parochial schools try to ensure their graduates are well-educated citizens who can contribute productively to the overall welfare of a democratic nation.

Our likenesses, at least in Pittsburgh, extend to the labor agreements that exist among our classroom professionals. Nearly all of the high school teachers and nearly half of the parish elementary school teachers are represented by a collective bargaining unit, the Federation of Pittsburgh Diocesan Teachers. As superintendent, I work with an appointed school solicitor to negotiate labor contracts between these schools and their full-time lay teachers for terms up to five years. I participate in periodic "meet and discuss" sessions involving the federation's executive council and the diocesan Department for Catholic Schools. Grievances, while few in number, are handled in the same way as they are handled in the public sector.

Special-needs children, who comprise roughly 10 percent of our enrollment, have individual education plans, which are updated regularly. With the phase-out of special education centers five years ago in the diocese, students with special needs receive inclusive education in several elementary schools and high schools. These children receive support services from public and private sources.

Worthy Comparisons

While the public sometimes perceives differences in the quality of academics provided by public and parochial schools, I have found them to be strikingly similar in reality. For example, all diocesan schools in Pittsburgh are accredited by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, and they adhere to such basic standards as acceptable teacher-pupil ratios and state and diocesan certification requirements for teachers and administrators. Our diocese has committed to continuously improve academic quality.

Although we do not encourage competition between its schools and the public schools, the diocese nonetheless reports regularly on the successes of its schools through a variety of media. We want audiences to know that our schools perform at high levels and that those in the inner city have a long history of serving poor and disadvantaged children.

We like to cite data such as the following about the diocesan schools, which mirror statistics about Catholic schools nationally:

* a high school dropout rate of under 1 percent;

* 95 percent of high school graduates go on to post-secondary schooling; and

* students consistently score above expected norms on standardized tests.

Thus, if one compares only the central-office management of a public school system to that of a diocesan school system, plenty of differences emerge. However, beneath the management level, a great number of similarities exist. The most obvious similarity is that each school leader must direct his or her attention to helping all students become productive citizens.

Robert Paserba previously served as superintendent of the Butler, Pa., Area School District. He is superintendent, Department for Catholic Schools, Diocese of Pittsburgh, Pa.


Viva La Difference!
By Howard B. Bennett


As someone who spent 28 years as a public school superintendent before moving into a diocesan superintendency six years ago, I could not disagree more with Peter Holland’s assessment of the differences that exist between public and Catholic schools, which he attributes to their disparate set of constraints.

I disagree substantially with his interpretation of differences. He sees a vast disparity between Catholic and public schools, which after much scrutiny of his words I do not share.

I do not deny one significant difference: the mission of Catholic schools. The purpose of Catholic schools is defined by its existence to impart the Gospel message, to develop a faith community, and to emphasize the importance of service to others.

Catholic schools are focused continually on this vision. Further, they have a proven track record that dates back for more than 100 years, and their focus on academic standards, moral development, and values clarification is as strong today as it was in the mid-19th century.

Taking Issue

When Holland suggests "Catholic schools tend not to be very selective in their admission of students," he is correct. Little if any difference exists between public and Catholic schools in the acceptance of students. In my experience, the same criteria applies to the suspension and expulsion of students in both school systems.

However, I would like to take issue with a number of points raised by Holland in describing the supposed differences between the two camps.

* "The governance structures of both public and Catholic schools reflect their public and private natures."

Holland exaggerates the differences in governance structures. Catholic school boards typically meet the same number of times as public boards of education. Of course, some Catholic school boards meet only a few times a year, similar to Holland's experience, but these are not typical boards.

As a Catholic school superintendent responsible for 27 schools and 7,000 students, I do not prepare for board meetings any more or less than I did as a public superintendent. The only difference is in the attitude of the school board members and their audiences. The participation at board meetings in the public arena was much more volatile, time consuming, and, for the most part, insignificant, wasteful rhetoric.

* "Catholic schools also enjoy greater consensus among students, teachers, and parents on the purposes of schooling and their vision and values."

This is certainly not my experience. People are people when it comes to the education of their children. While parents and community residents in the public school arena are more likely to rant and rave at their boards of education, the nature of disagreements over policies and practices that people bring to their boards of education differ little.

* "Developing curriculum, hiring and retaining faculty, maintaining facilities, and managing finances."

I could cite numerous examples illustrating similarities between curriculum, hiring and retaining faculty, and maintaining facilities in both public and Catholic schools. However, the only significant difference is in the managing of finances.

The public schools have a bottomless, "taxpayers’ well" of money that seldom runs dry, while Catholic schools continuously search for new sources of funding and the most effective use of their financial resources. Yet the budget process is very similar. As a diocesan superintendent, I still have to convince a higher authority (the bishop) on the need for increased budgets.

* "Grievance, resolution, and nurturing relationships with the bargaining unions."

Teachers unions on the secondary school levels are not significantly different in the two sectors. However, Holland is correct in pointing to the lack of unionism in Catholic elementary schools.

* "In forging public opinion and public policy regarding schools" and "for the most part, Catholic school administrators can avoid these time-consuming distractions."

Catholic school superintendents are just as concerned about public or consumer opinion and public policy in their schools as are their public school counterparts.

Common Mandates

* "Public schools are subject to state and federal mandates and regulations such as special education, which are not applicable to Catholic schools."

Holland's comparison between both the public and Catholic sector in terms of state federal mandates and regulations is overstated. Catholic schools have a significant number of state and federal regulations to which they must adhere because they apply to Catholic schools and their students.

While special education is significantly more a part of public schools, every Catholic school in the nation has children who are classified under the regulations dealing with special education (e.g., learning disabled, attention deficit H disorder, speech and language deficiencies, physically disabled).

* "Both public and Catholic schools work hard."

Here we are in complete agreement. Both public and Catholic schools work toward the success of their students!

One can find similarities and differences whenever you compare one educational system with another. But our concern should be for the future of both the public and Catholic school systems, living in harmony and concentrating not only on their differences but on their similarities as well.

Howard Bennett previously served as superintendent in Winsted, Conn., and the New York districts of Cambridge, Catskill, Clymer, Mt. Upton, and Tuxedo Park. He is superintendent of Catholic Schools, Diocese of Norwich, Conn.