Kathleen Porter-Magee joins Brian Anderson to discuss the enrollment decline of Catholic schools, the importance of school choice, and how private schools can position themselves for success.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is Kathleen Porter-Magee. Kathleen is the superintendent of Partnership Schools, which is a network of nine urban Catholic schools, seven in Harlem and the south Bronx and two in Cleveland. In a recent piece for City Journal, entitled "Learning to Thrive", Kathleen discusses all things Catholic schools, including their recent enrollment declines, their performance during the COVID-19 pandemic relative to other parts of the educational system and the steps these schools can take to succeed in the post-pandemic era, which we are hopefully entering. Kathleen, thanks very much for joining us today.

Kathleen Porter-Magee: Thank you for having me. I'm excited to be here.

Brian Anderson: So let's start by looking at the two trends that you explore in your City Journal piece. On the one hand, you have the performance of Catholic schools during the pandemic, which compares, as you know, quite favorably with other schools. Twice as many private school parents as public school parents said they were very satisfied with their schools in a recent survey. The vast majority of families who transferred to Catholic schools last year say they plan to stay in them in 2021. And 92%, I think, is the number of Catholic schools remained open or were open for full-time in-person instruction or at least hybrid learning at the beginning of 2021. Yet on the other hand, as has recently been reported, Catholic schools experienced their largest enrollment decline in 50 years last year, I think down almost 7% year over year. So what explains this discordance or this tension?

Kathleen Porter-Magee: I think there are a couple of different things. I mean, to be sure, urban Catholic schools in particular I think have been shrinking in enrollment for quite some time. And so certainly when we saw the news this year that we saw the largest year-over-year decline, those of us in the Catholic school community were very concerned that this was evidence of the continued decline. But when you actually peel back the onion and look underneath the headline, I think you see some hopeful signs and you see a little bit of a different explanation for why the overall enrollment numbers were down.

I would say one of the biggest contributors to the overall year-over-year decline was the significant decline in pre-K and kindergarten enrollment in Catholic schools, which actually mirrors the overall decline in kindergarten and pre-K enrollment everywhere. Essentially in response to the pandemic, a lot of parents of young children, either preschool-aged children or rising kindergartners, simply chose to hold their students back home. I think I've seen some numbers that estimate that about 30% of the overall decline in public school enrollment this year was due to that decline in pre-K and kindergarten enrollment. And in the Catholic schools, while the headline says that we saw an overall 6% decline in enrollment, nearly 50% of that decline was in pre-K and kindergarten.

So I think this is less a story of a declining sector and more a story of how parents of young children responded to the pandemic. And I think that makes sense because obviously as parents, we're faced with the possibility of hybrid instruction or coming off the spring when all of the schools shut down, when there was still a lot of fear, you can understand why parents of young children might have just chosen to delay. So I think that's the first and most significant contributor to the overall enrollment decline in Catholic schools.

I do think there's a second contributing factor, and this is inequitable access to choice. So one of the things that I think is really interesting, we took a look at enrollment trends, at least the data that we could gather so far this year, I'm sure more will come available in the months ahead, but we took a look at the enrollment trends and compared choice states to non-choice states, cities where all families had access to very broad choice versus other cities and states where parents don't have access to vouchers and tax credits, and what we saw was a very different story. So in places where there is equitable and broad access to school choice, you do actually see an increase in overall enrollment and an increase in the number of parents who are trying to access those choice programs, which again, I think tells a very different story that's hidden behind the headline of the overall decline.

Brian Anderson: What are some of the specific choice programs that have helped keep open access to the schools?

Kathleen Porter-Magee: So I think that the biggest one... So we run schools, again, in New York city and Cleveland, and for us, it was really interesting, COVID, and particularly, COVID in 2020, 2021, was really a tale of two cities. In Cleveland, Ohio, students and families have access to very broad school choice programs, including a city-wide voucher program. So anybody who lives within the city limits of the Cleveland municipal district is able to access public funding to attend any school that they want, whether that's public, charter or private and parochial. So for the families that we serve in Cleveland, Ohio, regardless of their own economic background or their own ability to pay, they were able to take, essentially, the Cleveland voucher and use it to attend schools that were open. Again, because in Cleveland, it followed what we saw nationwide, where Catholic schools did open in the diocese of Cleveland, but CMSD, the public schools did not. They remained remote. So in Cleveland, our families were able to take a public voucher and they were able to bring it to our schools and to other Catholic schools.

In New York, it was very, very different. New York remains one of, I believe, the 19 states that does not have any private school choice programs. So in New York city, the story really was even though New York city public schools were closed and fully remote, if you didn't have the means to be able to pay for tuition, or if you couldn't win the scholarship lottery and get one of the privately-funded school scholarship options, you just simply didn't have any options. You didn't have any choice.

Brian Anderson: In your view, how should advocates go about expanding choice opportunities? What's the best arguments you can make publicly to persuade legislators to move in this direction?

Kathleen Porter-Magee: To me, it seems like such an obvious argument to make, and maybe that's in part because I'm a mom and in part because I've worked in this world fighting for equity and excellence in education for quite some time. But to me, as we talk about the challenges of inequality and inequity in our education system, to me, part of that is inequitable access to excellent educational options. So if you really want to expand access to great schools, whether they be public or private or parochial, I can see no better way to do that than to give all families, regardless of their own socioeconomic status, the power of the purse. Essentially the power to be able to take funding, in this case, potentially public funding, and exercise their right to choose a school that's the best fit for their child.

So to me, I think one of the arguments is that it's just an equity issue. We should not be limiting options and limiting choice to only those families who can afford it. And again, I think you don't need to look any further than New York city in the neighborhoods where our schools, the schools we serve at the Partnership, where they're located, the public schools, they struggle in normal years and then when faced with a crisis that COVID presented, they struggled even more. And the fact that the families were locked out, they themselves were facing crisis, their children were facing crisis, but the fact that they were essentially told to wait because they could not access any sort of public money to opt out of a system that wasn't serving their needs just seems like the definition of inequality.

Brian Anderson: In terms of the Catholic schools themselves and their leaders, this is something we've written about in the past at City Journal that sometimes they don't market themselves as effectively as they might as a alternative for parents. I wonder if you've seen that yourself and if you have any suggestions for people working in the Catholic school environment on how to position themselves.

Kathleen Porter-Magee: Absolutely. I mean, I definitely feel like I sometimes wear two hats when I think about this issue. For sure, I am a huge advocate for broad school choice and for public funding to follow the child, whether that be to a private or parochial school. But as a Catholic school leader, I also see that we can't sit around and wait for school choice and hope that that will save us. There is actually a tremendous number of things that we can do as Catholic school leaders. We have a lot of agency ,and I think a lot more agency than we sometimes realize or exercise. And so one of those things is trying to get better about sharing the good news of what a Catholic education can do and can provide and being very intentional about marketing and outreach.

But I also think, and we took a deep dive because we also experienced enrollment declines leading up and before this year, and so we took a hard look at our own policies to say yes, in New York city, for sure we would love to and we will continue to advocate for vouchers and tax credits, anything that increases school choice in our city. But in the meantime, are there things that we could be doing? And what we realized through our own analysis was that we are actually erecting barriers, sometimes unintentionally, that are restricting access for families. So one of the things that we're focusing on this year is reducing barriers to entry, and that means some simple things.

So the admissions process at some Catholic schools is onerous. So one of the things that we realized in our own schools, so we offer privately funded scholarships to 100% of the students who attend our schools, and what we realized was that the paperwork hurdle that families needed to leap over in order to access those privately funded scholarships was just incredibly onerous. It was time consuming. And again, if you've got a family who is in crisis, is struggling with an economic crisis or a health crisis, or some other crisis, trying to meet those paperwork or admissions barriers can be really challenging. So one of the things that we did this year was we made a commitment to reduce every barrier that we may have intentionally or unintentionally erected. We made sure to pull it away so that we could increase access to as many students and as many families as we're seeking out a Catholic school education.

And I do think that that's something that Catholic school leaders can take a hard look at. What are the barriers that are within your control and how do you work to knock them out of the way so that we are just opening our doors and welcoming as many students and families as possible?

Brian Anderson: What about the competition from charter schools? A lot of folks might see the charter alternative as basically providing everything that the Catholic school would provide, yet doing so within the framework of the public schools. Do you see the charter environment as a problem for the future of Catholic schools? Or are they complimentary? Or are there things that the Catholic schools are providing in your view that the charters don't quite manage to provide?

Kathleen Porter-Magee: So, yes, I think that we definitely can be very competitive with charters and it's funny because there's no question... I think particularly again, in New York city, where we operate our seven New York schools, operate in what is arguably one of the most competitive charter landscapes in the country, and so it really is a challenging market. We have stiff competition from some of the most well-known highest performing charter schools, whether they be KIPP, or Achievement First, or Success Academies. However, I feel like as choice advocates ourselves, we have to embrace that competition. So it is true that the expansion of charter schools, particularly in cities like New York, has hurt Catholic school enrollment. There's no question. But again, if we believe that choice and competition is a net positive for families and communities, then I feel like as Catholic school leaders, we need to really embrace that and we need to make sure we're building our own competitive advantage.

So one of the things that so when I joined the partnership, I'm just finishing up my seventh academic year, and when I started... So all of the schools, all the Catholic schools in the archdiocese of New York take the New York state test and have for many years, and our academic results were not competitive with some of the highest performing charters at the time. So one of the things we needed to do was take a really hard look at what we were offering and say like, "Are we actually competitive with the highest performing charter schools, with the highest performing public schools?" And if not, that again is on us to improve. So we did. We made a really concerted effort to turn around our academics, which we were able to do, and now we have academic growth rates and proficiency rates that meet or exceed state and city averages, which we're very proud of, and that are competitive with the highest performing charters.

I think that across the country, while it certainly is true that the charter movement has taken a bite out of the enrollment in some cities, I think that Catholic school leaders, we need to rise to the competition and also keep saying that we do offer something that is unique. While the academic competition is stiff, the reality is because we are faith-based schools, the way we can wrap character education, values and faith around every piece of our education is unique. So now that is something that we are really intentional about and trying to focus on as we recruit new families, is that the families see that there is something different. It's more.

One of the things that we say this year is there is no test for a good life, but there is a school. And what we mean by that is when we think about educating for the good life, academics is obviously a critical part of it, but it's more than that. And I think as Catholic school leaders, that gets back to the question you asked before, about how are we marketing? Are we celebrating those things that make us unique? Because that's where our competitive advantage will be.

Brian Anderson: And with Partnership Schools, how do you operate with the archdiocese in New York and Cleveland? This is independent of the archdiocese or is it supported by the archdiocese? Where are you getting your funding support from?

Kathleen Porter-Magee: So from a funding standpoint, we are completely independent. But our schools, and this is actually by design, our schools are diocesan or archdiocesan schools, so we launched, and I think we're one of, if not the first network of this kind, where our board had negotiated... We had been working with Catholic schools in the archdiocese of New York, supporting them philanthropically for two decades before we became a school management organization. But then at the time, the board said to our board chair, Russ Carson said to Cardinal Dolan, "Maybe we can think differently. Maybe there's a different way we can be supporting schools." So what they did over the course of two years was negotiate a services agreement where the schools remain archdiocesan schools, but the archdiocese turned over full financial and operational control over, at the time six, now seven schools. In exchange, we took on full financial responsibility. So we can hire and fire, we can choose curriculum, we can make decisions about facilities and operations, everything. But our schools are still archdiocesan schools. And so if we aren't doing right by the communities we serve, the archdiocese can essentially fire us.

And when we expanded to Cleveland, we negotiated the same deal with the dioceses. So the schools that we expanded to just this past year, our diocesan schools, and again, the diocese has delegated to us full financial and operational authority and management control in exchange for full financial responsibility.

Brian Anderson: Well, very interesting. My best wishes to your continued success. You're doing very, very important work with these schools.

Kathleen Porter-Magee: Thank you.

Brian Anderson: Please check out Kathleen Porter-McGee's piece on the City Journal website, www.city-journal.org. We'll link to her author page in the description. You can also find City Journal on Twitter, @cityjournal, and on Instagram, @cityjournal_mi. And if you like what you've heard on today's podcast, please give us a rating on iTunes.

Brian Anderson: One more announcement, if you're a business student, or a recent MBA grad, or a professional interested in economics, business and public policy, please check out the Adam Smith Society. Starting on June 7th, they'll be holding their virtual national meeting, bringing together executives, various thought leaders and academics to address a variety of issues facing free market capitalism today. You can register and learn more about the national meeting by visiting smithsoc2021.event or visit the society's homepage at adamsmithsociety.com. To Kathleen, again, thanks very, very much for coming on the show today.

Kathleen Porter-Magee: Thanks so much for having me.

Photo by Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images

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