Leaders of Religious Private School Management Organizations Have New Complexities to Navigate

Private school management organizations (PSMOs) can learn a lot from the challenges and successes of charter school management organizations (CMOs) over the last couple of decades. However, one element crucial to many private schools’ missions—their religious orientation—creates a new and different set of challenges for PSMOs to navigate as they grow and expand.

As described in our recent paper, the degree of separation from a religious institution is a key factor differentiating existing PSMOs. Some PSMOs, like Blyth-Templeton and Thales Academy, are nonsectarian and therefore function very similarly to CMOs, entirely separate from any religious organizations.

But the vast majority of PSMOs in our study—12 of the 14—are religiously affiliated. Eight of the 12 PSMOs operate Catholic schools. To be considered Catholic schools, the local Bishop must formally recognize them as such, and all Catholic schools are governed by Canon law. Most are directly run by either an individual parish (parochial schools) or by the local diocese (diocesan schools). Historically, pastors have had a great deal of responsibility for running schools, overseeing not only the religious education but also the hiring of the principal and teachers, the school facility, the budget, managing enrollment, and more. When a PSMO takes over the operation of a Catholic school, however, it means a redistribution of these responsibilities and a new relationship between the pastor, parish, church community, school staff, and PSMO leaders. (For a fuller explanation of the history and governance of Catholic schools, see this guidebook.)

The Catholic PSMOs in our study have approached this challenge in a number of ways. Some, like the San Jose Drexel Schools and the Jubilee Schools in Memphis, are what we call “church-operated” PSMOs. Much like “skunk works” operations within large firms where a small group of people pursues a new idea outside of routine organizational procedures, church-operated PSMOs are separate offices embedded within the hierarchy of their local diocese. Although the diocese remains responsible for the success or failure of the schools, the PSMOs’ offices have been given considerable flexibility around the operations of a subset of schools. For example, the Jubilee Schools have a longer school day and year-round school calendar, different from the other schools in the diocese.

Other Catholic PSMOs have embraced what we call a “church-affiliated” model. These networks are all separate 501(c)(3) organizations that, through a management agreement with the local diocese, assumed operational control of a subset of the diocese’s schools. The nuances of these agreements—and their origins—vary significantly from PSMO to PSMO, and are prime fodder for additional study. But even just the basics that we cover in our paper suggest interesting divergence. For example, the Archdiocese of New York’s 2010 Strategic Plan laid out a plan for moving toward a regionalized governance structure that included the creation of a set of six inner-city elementary schools to be managed by a local nonprofit organization, The Partnership for Inner-city Education (PNYC). Through an 11-year agreement with the Archdiocese, PNYC has broad authority over the budgets, finances, operations, and academic programming of the six schools. As part of its five-year agreement with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the Faith in the Future (FIF) PSMO agreed to underwrite the deficits of the 17 high schools and four special education schools over which it gained operational control.

The Notre Dame ACE Academies (NDAA) has a considerably different model: Rather than assuming operational control of a set of schools in one particular geography, NDAA partners with local dioceses in multiple geographies to create a new, separate board to govern a subset of schools. NDAA provides a couple of board members and a school principal. Unlike the agreements forged by PNYC or FIF, under the NDAA model parishes continue to oversee and operate each school. The new board and principal allow NDAA to play a key role in school operations such as school culture, governance, finance, instruction, and family and community engagement.

Cristo Rey, on the other hand, has no such agreement with a diocese. Instead, its model is much closer to that of nonsectarian PSMOs or even CMOs. All of Cristo Rey’s schools are independent Catholic schools sponsored by religious orders rather than affiliated with a particular parish. Per Canon law, all of the network’s schools are formally recognized as Catholic by the local Bishop. But beyond that, there is no formal relationship between the schools and the diocese (although many schools do have close, voluntary relationships with the various orders that sponsor them).

The intricacies of Catholic PSMOs’ relationships with their local dioceses and the specifics of the various management agreements are important points for additional research. Not only is the field of PSMOs relatively new and burgeoning, but navigating relationships with religious institutions is something not paralleled in the public school sector. The Catholic PSMOs in this study have begun to pave new roads for future PSMOs. Their successes and challenges and ongoing navigation of a bureaucracy as complex and time-honored as the Catholic Church—all while respecting the history, faith, values, customs, and traditions of the Church and its local parishes, priests, and communities—must not be overlooked.