07/2003 The Friedman Report: Sister with a Cell Phone

Published July 1, 2003

Sister Mary Michaeline Green has witnessed the transformation of society mirrored in the Louisiana Catholic schools where she has taught for nearly 50 years.

Now in her seventies and Superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Diocese of Baton Rouge, the cheerful, stately woman–wearing her Dominican habit with a cell phone attached to the belt–turns wistfully serious when the talk turns to school choice.

Vouchers, she believes, could mean the difference between a future for Catholic education that is “more multi-cultural, offering more just wages to Catholic school teachers” or one that will continue to see Catholic education decline as schools in rural and inner-city areas struggle to remain viable.

Up until the 1960s, Catholic education thrived. A booming religious community provided high-quality instruction at low cost, and primarily stay-at-home mothers provided free, valuable assistance. But as more mothers became second wage-earners and as the ranks of the religious community began to decline, Catholic education became more expensive for churches to subsidize.

Catholic schools have had to hire more lay teachers to replace the nuns and priests who traditionally did the teaching. Since these lay teachers had not taken a vow of poverty and weren’t living in a rectory or convent, they had to be paid living wages.

“With the laity staffing our schools along with very few religious, the need for preparing the laity through classes in theology and Christian formation programs has been vital,” explains Sr. Mary, another added cost to the modern Church.

At the same time, increasing populations of low-income families in inner cities and rural communities are largely unable to afford higher tuition to cover these added costs.

While it seems the system already should have collapsed from the domino effect of such detrimental events, Catholic schools in Louisiana and across the country continue to serve their communities, adjusting their mission to accommodate an influx of non-Catholics. Despite a dearth of resources, Catholic schools continue to produce graduates with superior academic skills. As Sr. Mary puts it, they prepare students to “make a difference in this world and prepare them for eternity.”

This is done through a confluence of human dedication and pure perseverance. The latter is evident when speaking with Sr. Mary. This past year, she worked tirelessly to try to convince the state’s elected leaders that school vouchers would save one of the few good things going in Louisiana K-12 education. Instead of vouchers, the legislature opted for a state takeover of many of the worst public schools.

The challenges to continuing the Catholic school system are many, according to Sr. Mary: keeping tuition affordable in order to serve students of all socioeconomic levels; finding and hiring qualified teachers who are willing to work for considerably less than their public school counterparts; the “graying” of Catholic school leadership; continuing population shifts from the inner cities to the suburbs; and keeping up with technology while maintaining the integrity of a traditional curriculum.

A voucher program, says Sr. Mary, would help Catholic schools overcome these tremendous societal challenges and continue to educate children to undertake societal transformations of their own, as the leaders of the future.

In the meantime, Sr. Mary and her peers are committed to continuing to run the best school system in Baton Rouge on a shoestring budget.

Laura J. Swartley is communications director with the Milton and Rose Friedman Foundation in Indianapolis, Indiana. Her email address is [email protected].