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Donald W. WuerlDecember 22, 2008

One cold, wet January day I visited one of the inner-city Catholic schools of the Archdiocese of Washington. As I met with the students gathered in that all-purpose room that seems to be a part of every parochial elementary school, serving as the gym, lunchroom and even makeshift chapel, I asked, “Why did we come to school today? What brings us to school on a day like this?” Hands shot up. With great pride, a fourth grader who was directly in front of me replied, “I come to this school so that I can get an education and get a life!” In a nutshell, he gave the reason why we work so hard to sustain our Catholic schools, especially in the inner city. The schools offer their students a future.

An Endangered Species

The effectiveness of Catholic schools in the United States is well known. As many public schools face challenges, Catholic schools are seen as beacons of hope, especially for lower-income children in urban areas. In fact, the National Catholic Educational Association reports that 97 percent of Catholic high school graduates go on to college. Catholic schools work; they succeed in educating children.

But in many areas these schools are becoming an endangered species. At a White House Summit on Inner-City Children and Faith-Based Schools in April, President George W. Bush noted that nationwide, inner-city faith-based schools are “facing a crisis.” Nearly 1,200 of these schools closed between 2000 and 2008, displacing over 400,000 students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Why has this happened? One cause is obvious: demographic changes. The population has moved from older northeastern cities to the southwest, from city to suburbs or beyond. The District of Columbia, for example, has lost approximately 30 percent of its population since 1950, including 10 percent between 2000 and 2005. That means fewer children to attend city schools.

Another major issue is finances, particularly in urban centers and poor rural communities. Many families cannot financially support the schools. Neither can the local parish, which has been the traditional model for Catholic elementary schools, especially as costs increase of instructional materials, new technology and maintenance on aging buildings.

Today, most Catholic schools are no longer staffed by members of religious orders. A study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute points out that in 1967, 58 percent of the teachers in urban Catholic schools were nuns, priests or brothers. Today they comprise barely 4 percent. Lay teachers make up 96 percent of all Catholic school teachers.

In light of these challenges and the realization that we need to take clear and decisive action to ensure the viability of our Catholic schools, I called for an archdiocesan-wide convocation on Catholic education last year, and invited pastors, principals and members of parish councils, finance councils and other advisory groups to discuss together the future of our Catholic schools. This conversation was important because Catholic education—the passing on of the faith—is the responsibility of all Catholics, not just parents or the parish with an on-site school. Out of that convocation came a commitment to develop a comprehensive strategy to strengthen our schools, focusing on four key areas: academic excellence, Catholic identity, affordability and geographic accessibility (so that as many Catholic students as possible are within a reasonable distance of a Catholic school).

Setting Financial Goals

Affordability is critical. In our inner-city schools, many students live with the realities of urban poverty. And in rural St. Mary’s County, Md., a Chesapeake Bay waterman may earn as little as $17,000 per year. We have worked very hard to use resources wisely and to keep our schools affordable. For some families, it is still too much. Yet tuition covers only 70 percent of the cost of education on average.

Traditionally, Catholic schools have been financed by tuition payments, parish and archdiocesan subsidies and local fundraisers. Some high schools also receive subsidies from their sponsoring religious community. These continue to be important sources of support for our schools, but we need to think differently if we are to meet the financial challenge of providing Catholic education into the future. This includes seeking new sources of funding to provide better service to families with significant financial need. Over the past few years, tuition aid endowments have been established in Washington through a capital campaign. We have sought new donors—Catholic and non-Catholic. We also are rethinking how funds are used.

Historically, an education fund financed through an assessment on all parishes has been used for late-year operating subsidies to a small number of needy schools. While helping cover the financial gap of an under-enrolled school, the practice did nothing to fill a school’s seats. So this year, the archdiocese piloted a new tuition-aid program. Initially, nine schools were given a portion of their usual subsidy early to use as partial tuition aid to attract and to retain students who otherwise could not attend. The goal was to help families, increase enrollment and increase tuition yield.

The early results were so promising we quickly expanded the program. By the opening of the school year, approximately $900,000 given to 33 schools resulted in over 530 new or retained students and over $1.8 million in tuition payments from families.

With these new initiatives, available tuition aid more than doubled to $2 million; the actual need, however, is $18 million. Clearly, the church cannot meet the need on its own. Partnerships—with private scholarship groups and between families and governments—are critical for achieving educational equality for families. Considering the contribution of Catholic schools to the broader community, it makes sense. Last year, Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Washington saved local governments close to $385 million in tax expenditures for public schools.

New Strategies

Eleven years ago Cardinal James Hickey, then archbishop of Washington, was urged to close 12 inner-city Catholic schools. Instead, under his direction a consortium was founded with central oversight of eight schools and a mandate to strengthen academics, raise money and manage many administrative tasks so that principals and teachers could focus on students and academic needs.

The archdiocese and donors invested more than $68 million in these schools over 11 years. The consortium model proved to be an effective tool to sustain Catholic schools in the heart of the city, ensure their academic quality and provide faith-based and value-centered formation.

We learned, however, that even a successful model has limitations. The original consortium eventually expanded to 14 schools between 2002 and 2005 in an effort to keep other financially distressed schools from closing. Two schools consolidated; but by spring 2007, it was clear that the stress of the rapid expansion, combined with declining enrollments in many schools, had overwhelmed the consortium financially. The archdiocese covered a deficit of $7 million this past year alone.

After studies and consultations with advisory groups and 1,300 people at 12 parishes, approval eventually was given to continue five schools as Catholic, one under parish oversight and four as the Consortium of Catholic Academies. The others were converted to values-based charter schools as an alternative to closing. This reorganization allows us to sustain a continued presence of Catholic schools throughout the city—there are 21 in Washington, D.C., today, including 12 parish elementary schools—and ensure that schools serving lower income neighborhoods have access to needed financial and administrative resources. The archdiocese will provide $1 million to the consortium this year, and donors another $2 million.

The consortium is one of several innovative partnerships. Holy Redeemer School, not far from the U.S. Capitol, is a Magnificat School. This unique five-year partnership between the school, the archdiocese and the University of Notre Dame brings professional development, technical assistance and other support to get this inner-city school back on its feet.

Last year, the archdiocese opened Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School in partnership with the Salesians of Don Bosco and with support from the business community and the national Cristo Rey Network. Very low-income students get a Catholic college preparatory education through a creative work-study program. They “job share” at corporate offices, gaining valuable work experience and covering a large portion of their tuition.

The archdiocese also has established several regional elementary schools in outer suburbs, with costs and responsibilities shared by several parishes.

The Diocese of Pittsburgh, where I served as bishop for 18 years, in an effort to keep open as many Catholic schools as possible, had been giving a number of inner-city schools huge and unsustainable subsidies for years. By 1988, the diocese was approaching insolvency and had to take dramatic steps.

Out of this crisis came the Extra Mile Education Foundation. Business and foundation leaders across the community—Protestant, Jewish, Orthodox and Catholic—rallied to establish a foundation that would raise funds from a cross-section of foundations, corporations, businesses and individuals to support what now includes six urban schools, serving a student body that is predominantly African-American, economically disadvantaged and non-Catholic. Approximately 1,000 children a year receive a quality education. None have to repeat ninth grade, and close to 100 percent go on to graduate from high school.

Partnerships Make the Difference

The Extra Mile Foundation and the Consortium of Catholic Academies are two of many models nationwide that demonstrate that it is not only possible to engage the wider civic and business communities in the work of saving Catholic schools that serve the needy, but that it can be done well.

When we look to the wider community for partnerships, we do so with an awareness that more and more of our neighbors recognize the unique gift that Catholic education is to the community. This is even more obvious as we serve more non-Catholics. Our students graduate with a formation in self-discipline, personal integrity and moral values that come out of the faith-based environment of the school. These schools merit the support of the entire community.

Simple justice requires that parents benefit from the monies that we all pay in taxes for the education of all children. Parents have every right to expect that they can choose a school that meets the needs of their children and that the money they have paid for education will follow their child. Without funding, parents have no real school choice.

The Catholic Church cannot be expected—out of the free-will offerings of the faithful and other donors—to continue to provide such a wide-serving system of successful schools all by itself.

In the District of Columbia, a promising federal pilot program, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, is helping bring educational equality to low-income families. Federal grants provide a limited number of families with tuition and some fees up to $7,500. For those at our archdiocesan schools, the program typically pays $4,500 for tuition. The difference between the grant and the real cost of education is paid by the archdiocese and the Catholic schools. While studies show high parent satisfaction and academic progress—the 2008 valedictorian at Archbishop Carroll High School was an Opportunity Scholarship recipient—the program, unfortunately, will end at the conclusion of this school year unless Congress reauthorizes it.

Another example of partnerships working well can be seen in Pennsylvania. In 2001, the legislature authorized a business tax credit to support scholarships for lower- and middle-income students to attend non-public schools, and professional development for teachers in public and non-public schools. In the first six years, businesses donated $360 million for scholarships, benefiting nearly 160,000 students and funding thousands of public education initiatives.

An effort is underway in Maryland for a similar partnership involving government, businesses, families and schools, called Boast (Building Opportunities for All Students and Teachers).

Partnerships like these—with school families, parishes, local dioceses, the business and donor community and public entities—are critical to the success of our schools. With them, the future of Catholic schools and the students they serve looks bright. It is time to think differently about how we sustain Catholic schools so generations of children can benefit from the firm foundation and great education they provide. All you have to do is look at the happy faces of the children in our schools. Our kids know that our schools work.

From the archives, why the manger at Bethlehem was the first Catholic school.

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15 years 2 months ago
Archbishop Wuerl: In your efforts to preserve the future of Catholic education, please do not overlook the issue of just and adequate wages for the teachers at these schools. It is well known that teachers at Catholic schools have salaries substantially lower than their public school counterparts. Beyond the moral component of the issue of adequate wages there is the impact that poorly paid teachers can have on academic quality. Many teachers at Catholic schools take a lower salary out of conviction for what they do, and because it is more enjoyable to teach when parental involvement is expected, no NCLB pressure, and respect for teachers is championed. However, a low salary can also attract weak teachers who not competitive in the hiring process at other schools. High academic standards and progressive educational programs are vital to the survival of Catholic schools. We want the best and the brightest teaching our children. Failure to attract such teachers with competitive salaries is already driving away the demographic most needed for the financial health of Catholic schools: Parents who pay the full cost of tuition AND contribute financially to the parish on a regular and substantial basis.
15 years 2 months ago
"The effectiveness of Catholic schools in the United States is well known. As many public schools face challenges, Catholic schools are seen as beacons of hope, especially for lower-income children in urban areas." Would that this were the case. In the face of implosions of many kinds occuring globally at this time, the vacuum of any credible correlation of evolution to faith/ theology in the classroom is a glaring and hurtful deficiency the Church needs to correct post-haste.
Edison Woods
15 years 2 months ago
God alone knows how much I wish I'd had a Catholic Education. May God bless Bishop Wuerl and his colleagues for their work. Everyone nowadays claims to know the importance of education. But I suspect that only those who have had to struggle for it really know how important it is. I am a convert to Catholicism and so did not have an opportunity to study in a Catholic school. As a child I attended two state schools for the blind where I only learned to hate the classroom. Only as an adult did I come to recognize the importance of education. I have never forgotten being fifteen years old in the fourth grade. Today I have three college degrees but I can not help envying every child who enters a Catholic school. Please God never let the light of Faith which I am certain shines upon them and their teachers ever go out.
15 years 2 months ago
With my deepest respect to the Bishop, we seem to miss the whole purpose of what Catholic schools are (or should I say were) about. The primary purpose of Catholic schools is to teach the faith to the next generation. What Catholic schools are not is a remedy to our decaying public schools. Are Catholic schools a”beacon of hope” because of the good news of Christ or because they offer a good education, great extracurricular activities or a safe environment (and no they should not be mutually exclusive)? It is not as if there is only one option – catholic schooling or no schooling. Bishop Wuerl suggests we must strengthen our Catholic schools because public schools aren’t effective. Maybe so, but what is more just: The husbandry than squandering of resources on two separate secular school systems (public and the nominally and/or formally Catholic) or the empowerment of citizens in low income areas to transform their schools into institutions that help raise them out of poverty. Based on the principle of subsidiarity and the amount of money and resources we waste, we must demand our schools perform. Unfortunately, that’s a subject for another day. God Bless
James Lindsay
15 years 2 months ago
His Excellency shares some excellent options. I hope his brother bishops are paying attention. There are a few issues, however, that must also be raised. The first, of course, is the overturning of Blaine Amendments banning state aid to Catholic Schools. It is past time to challenge these on equal protection grounds, even if doing so is a departure from the National Right to Life Committee's views on federalism (which are erroneous anyway). The second issue blocking funding is the current resistence by many to the unionization of Catholic schools. It seems to me to be a reasonable compromise to allow teachers to unionize on the public dime. The third option to pursue is to redouble, and in some cases, establish Church efforts in adult and vocational education. Educated parents are a predictor of educated children. The state has failed many of these parents, the Church won't if it expands its line of business from steering people to college to educating all in whatever endeavor they chose. It is also in a unique position to bring to bear Catholic social services to this client base, which may be in need of both daycare and addiction treatment services.
Leonard Villa
15 years 2 months ago
Concomitant with the financial crisis is the identity crisis of Catholic schools:how many of our schools are really Catholic in the Church's understanding? How many of nominally Catholic schools are undermining the Church by relying on a sociological calculus as the norm of Catholic identity transmitting a warmed-over secular humanism instead of the Catholic Faith? Scholar Tracy Rowland notes: "Most of them (the young) who leave (the Church) do so because they go to Catholic schools and they think that the kind of warm secular humanism with Christian gloss that they get in Catholic schools is in fact the Catholic faith and it hasn't captured their imagination, their love or their intellect so they are walking away from something that they do not know. It's not like a love affair where you reject a person you have learnt to love and know. They've never been in love with the Church. They've never known it." That's the real crisis not finances!
15 years 2 months ago
Archbishop Wuerl's essay on the challenges facing 21st century parish schools is an important one. The numbers are indeed staggering. In 2008 we have just over 7000 schools in this country, compared with some 13,000 in 1965. Since the year 2000 the Los Angeles Archdiocese school enrollment has declined nearly 20% to just over 80,000 students. A definitive change in the way these schools are run is necessary. Many of your readers will be familiar with the stories of changing neighborhood demographics, and changing cost structures. However, the archbishop's case in Washington DC of forming alliances with extra-ecclesial organizations is but one of many options that school districts have to respond to this challenge. Tracing their roots back to such 19th Century giants as Elizabeth Ann Seaton and John Neumann, American parochial schools have served as a gateway to the American experiences for generations of poor and immigrant families. These schools preserved a Christian culture in a hostile environment, while providing children with the demanding curriculum necessary to succeed. These schools were built by blue-collar parishioners who wished provide for generations to come. In these schools one can see just how "catholic" the church really is. Reminiscent of James Joyce's description of the Catholic Church as "Here comes everybody," these schools have educated millions of Irish, Italian, Polish, Mexican, Filipino, Dominican, and Puerto Rican children. These schools were built at a feverish pace through the 1960s, in an effort to keep up with the baby boom. By 1970 the construction frenzy came to an abrupt halt nationwide. American Catholics had made it. They had elected one of their own as president, and moved to the suburbs. In 2008 the situation is very different. The continued success of Catholic Schools in the United States depends on leadership, marketing, and planning. Scott Hamilton's study "Who will save America's Urban Catholic Schools" (Fordham)takes an in-depth look around the country at what different dioceses are trying to do. He looks specifically at efforts in Denver, Memphis, Wichita, Milwaukee, and DC. Denver chose to agressively market their schools. Twenty years ago there were few alternatives to Public schools, outside of the Catholic system. That is not true today. Memphis chose to agressively fund-raise to keep schools in poor neighborhoods open. Dedication to the poor resonates with donors. In an era where the church has lost much of its moral authority as the result of the child-abuse crisis, outreach to the poor is a way to re-earn the respect of the greater society. Wichita's success shows the succes that effective leadership, in this case from the bishop himself, can have in re-invigorating the parochial school system. Milwaukee's experience demonstrates that vouchers are not the panacea that many have dreamed of. Vouchers may attract some families, but often these families are less than dedicated to the success of the school. Hamilton's study of DC shows that throwing money at schools in the absence of leadership, marketing, or planning does little to make the schools viable. Catholic schools face a unique set of challenges in the 21st. Century. The world is very different that it was in 1930, 1950, 1970, or even 2000. If the challenges are great, so are the opportunities. The schools are already built and paid for. How can we capitalize on this? The #1 hurdle facing many groups that try to start schools is the cost of bricks, mortar, and real estate. We already have those. The Church is growing. In Los Angeles we had more baptisms in 2007 than at any time in our the history of the diocese. Anyone who has attended a First Communion ceremony recently has witnessed the pride and enthusiasm that young families can demonstrate for the celebratory aspects of our faith. Despite this fact, I never hear the schools promoted from the pulpit. The
15 years 2 months ago
PS. Ideas for Catholic School Development Committees: Obtain baptismal lists to invite parents of 5 year olds to consider your school. Give presentations and school handouts to CCD families about what is available at the school. In Santa Maria, CA we had nearly 2,000 students enrolled in CCD programs at our school's 3 feeder parishes. The school had 240 students, and romom for for 100 more. Educate principals and pastors about incremental income. Don't simply raise tuition to cover costs, thus causing a higher barrier for many families. Rather, think of how to bring more students into the classrooms, spreading overhead costs over more students. It costs little more to teach 35 kids than it does to teach 15 in a classroom. Ask feeder parishes without schools to allow room in the bulletin and at the pulpit to promote the school. Have school masses at the feeder parishes instead of only at the home parish. Ask parishes to compile email lists of parishoners to facilitate fast, affordable ways to send out information. Present the school case to small faith communities. Many of today's immigrants simply do not know the blue-collar history of our schools. Reach out to High School and Catholic college alumni groups for support. Create a show for EWTN or Sirius Catholic Radio on the vibrancy and value of Parochial schools. Invite prominent alumni to help with a book to benefit Catholic schools. What a group we have. Bill Clinton, Bill O'Reilly, Chris Matthews, Richard Riordan, Sean Combs, Antonio Villaraigosa, Soledad O'Brien. Too bad we have lost Ed Bradley and Tim Russert. Inspire the faithful about the schools as our toehold in the 21st Century, instead of haranguing about what they used to be. Provide leadership training for principals in student recruitment and fund-raising. Good luck and thank you to all those working to strengthen our schools. Giovanni

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