Thomas Burnford, president and CEO of the National Catholic Educational Association, spoke May 3 at the Breakfast with the Bishop fundraiser held at the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph. The annual event raises funds for the Catholic Schools Student Scholarship Fund, an endowed fund of the Catholic Foundation for the Diocese of St. Cloud that assists Catholic school students in grades one through eight. This year’s event raised about $57,000.
The following are edited excerpts from an interview The Visitor conducted with Burnford following the breakfast.
Q: A priority for a Catholic school is always its Catholic identity. Given the demands of education today, how does a school maintain and even strengthen its Catholic identity? And what can parents and people in the pews do to ensure it?
Burnford: Catholic identity in a Catholic school cannot be separated from the Catholic identity of the people who work in the school. So, really, it’s about the lived faith experience of teachers, staff, principals and all those who work to make a Catholic school successful in its mission — which is one integrated mission. The mission of a Catholic school is to incorporate knowledge into faith, and faith into life.
Regarding parents and their role, the church can only help parents, who are the primary educators of the children. And so faith needs to be lived and witnessed at home, first and foremost. And then the school can take that faith and grow it in the student.
Q: For people who had kids attending Catholic schools in the past, or people who never had a child in a Catholic school, are there still some responsibilities for them in terms of supporting Catholic schools?
Burnford: Catholic education, Catholic schools are the responsibility of the entire church. They’re a ministry of the church in the same way the church reaches out to the poor. Catholic schools are not just for those who “use them” — as in the parents who have kids in a Catholic school. They are an evangelizing ministry of the Catholic Church and a very successful one. They form citizens who are successful in this life — in secular jobs, secular roles in the world — and also in faith and in service to the church. So Catholic schools belong to the entire Catholic population.
Q: In many places around the country, Catholic school enrollment has been a challenge. Are there some things that every Catholic can be doing to help with this issue?
Burnford: I think we need to do a better job of telling or communicating the value of Catholic school education to the general population — including Catholics within the general population who may never have considered a Catholic school for their children, and particularly Catholics who may not be regular participants in the life of the church.
But how do we communicate the value of what we do for people today — particularly when the traditional methods of communication are not important to many people? Some marketing research has shown that millennial parents will get 60 percent of the way toward making a decision about where their kids go to school without ever visiting the school, without ever talking to anyone who works at that school. They get 60 percent of the way toward choosing a school through social media and talking to their friends.
So, if you are a parent with a child in a Catholic school and you like that Catholic school, tell people about it. You have to tell people about it. … My kids are in Catholic school, and if that school flourishes and grows in enrollment, then my kids do better. They are in a more vibrant and more flourishing school. So it’s in my best interest as a parent to tell my neighbors.
Q: Another challenge for many families is the cost of tuition. There have been legislative proposals, so far unsuccessful, in Minnesota to expand educational choice through the use of tax credits. When you hear people say they just can’t afford a Catholic school education, how do you respond to that?
Burnford: First, I would say, “Make sure you’ve asked about tuition assistance.” There are many tuition assistant programs that parents don’t know about.
Second, is it really that unaffordable? For some families I understand that. For those families tuition assistance is available to the greatest extent possible. There are also many families that can afford a Catholic education but maybe prefer to spend their money in other ways. And that’s their right, and that’s their choice, and that’s totally fine. But let’s at least really think about the value of a Catholic school education in the formation of a young person, for that young person’s life.
It’s worth noting that parental choice legislation across the country — now in 29 states, with close to 60 programs in those 29 states — is growing rapidly. That is only right and just. The fact that tax dollars in the United States generally don’t follow the child to the school that the parents want that child to go to, that’s unjust. It’s also not the norm in the rest of the world. By far, the majority of countries have significant subsidies for Catholic education and for other forms of faith-based education.
So we’re in a unique situation here. I would encourage all people to support parental choice legislation and to work toward that.
Q: What makes you optimistic about the future of Catholic schools in this country?
Burnford: I’m optimistic about the future of Catholic schools because I just visited three schools here in the Diocese of St. Cloud — three very different schools, and it was just such a wonderful experience. I visited Cathedral High School, Holy Family School in Albany and Holy Cross School [in Pearl Lake].
They were all very different. Each one of them was instantly recognizable as a Catholic school by the warm, welcoming environment, by the students who were able to engage with me as someone in a suit from out of town, and by the joy of the faculty that we encountered. [It was] the true joy that you experience in a Catholic school. That’s why I send my kids to Catholic school.