What is the difference between a Catholic parochial school and a Catholic private school? There is a sharp distinction between the two, a distinction that is important for the members of our community to understand because it affects everything from the perception of the mission of the school to its funding.
Misconceptions abound when people don’t understand the fundamental difference between a private school and a parochial school.
One misconception is evident in statements like these: “Well, why is the school such a drain on the parish budget? The parish would have plenty of money if it wasn’t for that school! Why don’t they just raise the tuition so the school can pay for itself? If it can’t pay for itself, they should shut it down!”
Another misconception is evident when people say things like: “Oh, as long as you’re a member of St. Mary’s Church, your kids get to go to the Catholic school for free!”
This message is an attempt to provide some clarification.
A Catholic private school is financed almost completely by the tuition that is paid for each student in attendance. In many cases there may also be endowment funds which help to finance the school, but generally speaking, tuition is the primary source of income. Many Catholic schools, especially high schools in larger cities, are private schools of this type. If the expenses for running the school go up significantly, the tuition goes up accordingly. A private school is an independent entity. It stands alone, especially in terms of funding.
A Catholic parochial school, on the other hand, is an extension of a larger entity namely the local church. Webster defines parochial as “of or relation to a church parish.” A parochial school does not stand alone. It is part of and is supported by something bigger than itself.
St. Mary’s Catholic School is a parochial school. We are not an independent entity; we do not stand alone, either in our mission or in the financing of that mission. We are not an extension of St. Mary’s Church. Indeed, we are one of the primary ways (if not the primary way) that St. Mary’s Church fulfills its fundamental mission to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ. We do this by teaching the faith to the youngest members of our church family. Though accomplished within the context of an academic setting, it is this proclamation of the faith which is the reason our school was established in the first place, and it is the primary reason for its existence today.
The private school model (Catholic or otherwise) says, “If you can afford tuition, you are welcome to come to our school.” The parochial school model says, “All Catholic children within our parish have a right to a Catholic education, regardless of the financial resources of their particular family.” Therefore, when the costs of the school go up, a parochial school doesn’t simply raise the tuition to keep from going into the red. A parochial school is not an academic ‘business” It is an evangelical mission.
How then is a parochial school supported to pay for itself? First of all, we do charge some tuition. We charge tuition to non-Catholics who wish to come to our school, and we charge tuition to Catholics at a discounted rate. But anyone who is familiar with St. Mary’s knows that these revenues provide for only a fraction of the overall cost of the school.
So how are we supposed to pay for all the rest? Well, (now, don’t shoot the messenger) the answer lies in a serious approach to stewardship. People in the parish…all the people, not just the people who had kids in the Catholic school, are supposed to be tithing. This is not a new concept. It is as old as the scriptures themselves. If every family, rich or poor, was giving just the recommended 5% of their yearly income to the local parish of St. Mary’s Church, we would have no problem funding any ministry in our parish, including the school.
It is a sad fact that Catholics are the lowest givers in Christendom, averaging only 1% to 2% of their annual income. How do we move people to the conversion of heart necessary to recognize the fact that everything that comes to us…our spouses…our children…our talents…our jobs…the very air we breathe…the grace that keeps us alive from one split second to the next…everything…is a gift from God. Once people really know that in their hearts, giving of their times, talent, and treasure ceases to be much of a problem.
Until people come to the conversion of heart, intellectually understanding the difference between a “parochial” and a “private” school won’t really make much difference. Without that conversion of heart, we will continue to have too many school families who send their children to St. Mary’s Catholic school without making any serious attempt to tithe to St. Mary’s Church. We will continue to have too many parishioners who represent every dime that goes from the coffers of “their” parish to support “that” school, and we will continue to have too many members of our parish (“school” and “non” school alike) who sit with arms crossed in the pews thinking. “This is my money…I earned it…and I wish Father would just be quiet and quit trying to talk me out of it!” And that will be too bad…for everyone. We have a wonderful parish school, one that is well worth keeping…and supporting.
Perhaps as we contemplate and anticipate the greatest of God’s gifts to us, we can all prayerfully consider our own giving.