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Catholic Education

Catholic vs. public schools: myth and reality


Conventional wisdom has it that Catholic schools represent a mysteriously marvelous educational bargain. Unfortunately, a closer look at fiscal details reveals the wisdom of the adage, “If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.”

For example, a 1995 Seattle Times article presented a fascinating picture of five successful Catholic inner-city schools: St. Edward, St. George, St. Joseph, St. Therese and St. Paul. The news piece described effective education programs and satisfied parents. The author stated that, while Catholic schools spent an average of $4,000 per pupil -- $2,700 less than public school spending -- the five inner-city Catholic schools offered such amenities as foreign language classes, high level math and science courses, and extensive libraries and expensive computer labs. The article implied that obviously Catholic school administrators had found some way to provide sophisticated educational products at a fraction of the cost of similar public educational programs.

The Times writer didn’t explain how Catholic program administrators accomplished the seemingly magical feat. The reporter referred once to salary disparities between public and private education. An undefined salary differential, however, probably doesn’t explain a spending gap of $2,700 per pupil between inner-city Catholic schools and Seattle public schools.

As with many descriptions of the wondrous fiscal efficiency of Catholic schools, the Seattle Times article compared a $6,700 apple to a $4,000 orange.

The single per pupil statistic for public education represents the cost of a variety of programs: basic education, vocational-technical programs, special education and remedial programs. In addition, the fiscal measure of public education reflects substantial overhead costs and a transportation and food service budget. The per pupil cost for Catholic education likely compares to the cost of basic classroom education in public education -- only without an expensive superintendent’s office or a fleet of yellow buses.

Public school districts in Washington state spent approximately $6.1 billion to educate 949,000 students in 1998-99. This expense works out to be $6,404 per pupil. Such an umbrella statistic includes fiscal data from quite different programs. Vocational-technical schools cost $6,150 per pupil for 46,988 students. Special education programs required an expenditure of $13,700 per pupil with an enrollment of 47,069 students. By far the majority of public schools fall into the category of basic education where the cost was only $5,206 per pupil. Finally, a catchall grouping of remedial programs like federal assistance for districts impacted by military bases account for an expenditure of $727 per pupil for the enrollment in all programs. Public school districts spent a total of $1.63 billion on programs beyond the neighborhood school structure.

The basic education per pupil cost of $5,206 still contains services not offered by parochial school programs. Central administration represents the largest single cost peculiar to public education. The superintendent’s office for each school district in Washington state cost an average $776 per pupil in 1998-99. This represents an expenditure of $736.7 million. Transportation involves about $271 per pupil and food service an additional $231 per pupil.

Subtracting the impact of these three factors -- centralized administration, transportation and food service -- leads to an estimate of the per pupil cost of public education that can be reasonably compared to the cost of Catholic education. The cost to run a public school building that provides only basic education is about $3,900 per pupil.

Since no statewide estimates for the cost of Catholic education exist, I assume that Catholic schools in Washington state cost about the same as the national average for Catholic schools in 1998-99. Catholic elementary schools in the United States cost an estimated $2,825 per pupil for the 1998-99 school year. This represents a total cost of $5.7 billion to operate 6,990 schools for a bit over 2 million students. Catholic secondary schools for the same year cost approximately $5,986 to educate about 630,000 students in 1,227 secondary schools. Secondary programs amounted to a total budget of $3.9 billion. The aggregate cost of all Catholic schools, K-12, was $9.6 billion -- or $3,584 per pupil for 1998-99.

A fair comparison to the cost of public education would be the difference between the $3,900 public school cost for basic education programs -- less central administration, buses and food service -- and the estimate of $3,584 per pupil for Catholic schools. In that case, the 90 Catholic schools in Washington state cost about $316 less per pupil, or 8 percent less than comparable public programs.

The Seattle Times article suggested that Catholic schools somehow produced programs that cost 40 percent less than public school counterparts. In fact, Catholic schools probably cost about 8 percent less than public schools’ basic education programs, at least in Washington state.

Public and Catholic school programs operate quite differently. A total-to-total comparison ignores differences like the price of central administration. As noted, in Washington state an average public school superintendent’s office cost $776 per pupil. In the Seattle archdiocese, Catholic schools contribute $15 per pupil to defray the cost of the Catholic superintendent’s office.

In the Catholic system, the building principal supervises the budget, works with teachers to develop curriculum, and makes all the hiring decisions; in the public environment, principals function more as coordinators between the central office and the classroom teacher.

Taking into account differences in administration, transportation and food service, the basic classroom cost for both public and Catholic programs was not especially different. Catholic schools have the advantage of not having to spend much money beyond the classroom and the principal’s office.

Joseph Claude Harris works as the chief financial officer for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Seattle, Wash. His e-mail address is sharris7@earthlink.net

National Catholic Reporter, March 30, 2001