We fly unto thy patronage… or Dear Benefactors, Part 2

In my last column, I called all of us to grant our patronage to that most important ministry of our culture and our Church: Catholic education. Yes, donor fatigue is a real feeling, but we need to understand it in context. We need perspective in order to refresh ourselves.

It was my trip to Rome and Florence that rekindled how I understood the power and importance of patronage. It was clear that centuries of art, which helped form the glories of our western civilization, existed because people saw the importance of funding beauty. As Bishop Robert Barron teaches, “The pattern is more or less as follows: first the beautiful (how wonderful!), then the good (I want to participate!) and finally the true (now I understand!).”

It sounds simple and important, so it should be easy to find generous patrons to help fund Catholic education, right?

Well, it is not so simple as one would wish. Three simple difficulties that our Catholic schools face, if seen more clearly and with perspective, could be reversed and eliminated if we donors are made aware of the traps. Seeing these common philanthropic traps, with so many of our nation’s wealthy being Catholic or benefitting from Catholic schools, could radically change the tide Catholic schools closing or secularizing.

Poor teachers are dedicated teachers. I once had a board member that said we should not pay teachers more than $1,000 per month or we would not know if they were dedicated. Heavens! Please, dear patrons, avoid the “sacrificial wage” trap, since it puts us on the wrong side of the Church’s social doctrine on a just wage. Unless we are paying our faculty living wages, taking care of our own, we will have a hard time promoting true justice to our students and our community.

Increased fame will increase enrollment. If we apply principles of business to schools, we will save our schools. While some principles are certainly applicable, usually the bottom line ends up driving the ministry. Often the true mission succumbs to financial success. A great industry has already been made of the Catholic prep school, and has been found wanting. In how many cities are championships and scholarships the measure of a school’s worth. They are the “famous” schools. They can now charge much more tuition. Then others struggle to follow. Many of the lower tier schools have been counseled to double or triple their tuition in order to “be taken seriously.” Their enrollment may have increased, but they typically have lost their mission along the way.

What are we saying about education when this becomes our measure? How does this align with the mission of a Catholic school? How, with this model, are we encouraging all Catholics to participate in their birthright of a Catholic education. It becomes a destructive cycle. As a donor, I need to support the school in any way I can to be true to her mission—this is the raison d’être of our Catholic schools.

Help the broader society by building the charter schools. This is a fine goal, but it must be very carefully considered. Increasingly, charter school systems are expanding and, in many cases, these schools are cannibalizing students from Catholic and other private schools because they can offer free schooling. This portends dire consequences.

On one hand, providing a much better human education for kids in failing public schools is a great service. On the other, building significant elements of the charter school population from the private school system weakens the private schools as a whole in this nation. As a wise man once cautioned, “…like in a delicate biosphere, each part of the biosphere plays its part in the healthy balance of the system. If even a small portion of the system gets too far out of balance, the whole system can collapse. Similarly, the private schools in this country play an essential role in keeping the government schools in some sort of check—they help maintain a healthy educational culture. Don’t presume it cannot all go to hell.”

Charter schools are government schools, too, and one election could totally undo them in a given state or nation. History is rife with examples of such disasters. One lawsuit could destroy a school or whole system. It is already happening with new aggressive gender identity lobbies—see, for example, Minnesota’s Nova Classical Academy Charter School.

I hope people continue to work with charter schools, but only if they give supreme credence to two conditions: make sure these schools are serving the underprivileged who are suffering under disturbing educational conditions, and make sure that a significant part of your philanthropic dollars continue to keep the Catholic school nearby healthy.

Seeing these scenarios as the traps they are can help us restore the great hope that is Catholic education. Catholic schools need our patronage to survive, but more importantly, they need our patronage to thrive. One return on investment we can look for and insist on is that our schools are faithful. If we are going to fund art, let it be beautiful—art that points to goodness, and ultimately Truth. If we are going to fund Catholic schools, let them be beautiful, faithful, abiding in goodness, and seeking Him who is the maker of all beauty and goodness, Truth Himself.

MICHAEL J. VAN HECKE, M.Ed., a seasoned headmaster and educational speaker, is also the founder and president of The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education and the Catholic Textbook Project. In their spare time, he and his wife farm avocados.

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