Why we can't afford to close Catholic schools

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Article Social Justice

It's pretty subdued day at Our Lady of Mercy School on Chicago's Northwest Side. Most of the kids are in class, huddled over Terra Nova achievement tests; George and Julio are "timing out" on a bench just outside the lunchroom but still smiling mischievously at each passerby; a Commonwealth Edison crew is cleaning up the mess after somebody crashed into a light pole beside the side entrance the night before; and principal Debbie Sullivan is in her office by an ancient Rich public address machine worrying over how the school is going to make ends meet.

All in all, a fairly normal day.

There are 230 kids at Our Lady of Mercy. That's down from 275 last year and more than 300 just a few years before. A 10 percent tuition hike next year may mean more empty seats in September, though Sullivan is trying to remain optimistic. Tuition here runs about $2,400 a year, though it costs the school closer to $3,700 to educate each student.

Mercy survives on $50,000 to $70,000 a year in support from the parish; $80,000 from the Archdiocese of Chicago; and another $30,000 to $40,000 from Chicago's Big Shoulders program, a multimillion dollar corporate campaign to raise cash to keep Catholic schools open in low-income neighborhoods. A commitment to admit every child in the parish who wishes to attend regardless of ability to pay may have helped stem the school's enrollment decline, but it has left Mercy $30,000 in the red-a shortfall the scholarship committee is supposed to make up this year.

"Seeking money is an obsession," says Sullivan, an obsession that is profoundly interfering with her "other" role as Mercy's principal.

Returning to class after lunch, a group of eighth graders are eager to expound on the value they, their families, and even the other kids in the neighborhood see in a Catholic education. "The other kids are jealous of us; they want to come here, too," one of the kids says. "They see how much fun we're having."

The group is a fair microcosm of Mercy's student body. Most are Latino-many of them children of first-generation, Spanish-speaking Mexican immigrants. Eighty percent qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program. Asked if they plan to attend Catholic high school, about half the hands go up in the air. Do they plan to go to college? All the hands shoot up.

"I wouldn't trade this school for anything," Edgar, one of the kids, says with sudden forcefulness after listening to his friends describe the school's advantages.

Unfortunately, kids like Edgar may not have much of a choice in the future. Next year the archdiocese will cut back its grant program that supports Catholic schools in some of Chicago's poorest neighborhoods from $9 million to $6 million. The program will be reduced in subsequent years until it is ended entirely and replaced by a "tuition assistance pool." Facing recent budget deficits of more than $14 million, the archdiocese says it can no longer support schools that cannot find a way to be self-sustaining.

Without that grant money, "there's no way this school can survive," says Sullivan, shaking her head. Of course, Mercy is far from alone in facing tough financial times ahead, and there is some cause for hope. The scholarship committee has just begun a major fundraising effort targeting alumni and local businesses, and 60 new families have expressed interest in the school. But Mercy's future remains far from secure. While it attempts to stave off what may be the inevitable, it will keep its doors open and do what it can for the kids of its community.

Best of times, worst of times
"Our numbers have gone up, and they will continue to go up," says Robert Kealey, speaking enthusiastically about the improving overall enrollment figures at America's Catholic elementary and high schools. Kealey is the executive director for the Department of Elementary Schools at the National Catholic Education Association. Catholic school enrollment has grown by more than 64,000 in the past decade, but the happy numbers reported by the NCEA can't hide a troubling paradox facing Catholic education in America.

While the past 10 years have seen substantial increases in enrollment in suburban schools, where expansion of existing schools and new school construction is the norm, the nation's urban Catholic schools have maintained nearly two decades of declining enrollment and school shutdowns and consolidations. Last year, while 38 new schools opened-mainly in the suburbs-73 closed or consolidated-virtually all in urban dioceses.

The Archdiocese of Chicago, which comprises both the most affluent and the most impoverished communities in Illinois' Cook and Lake counties, offers a compelling example of these contradictory forces. After a series of painful school closings during the 1980s, Chicagoans may have thought they had seen the worst in terms of large-scale school shutdowns, but the archdiocese has already announced that seven more schools won't reopen next fall and talk of more school closings and consolidations within the city limits continues. Meanwhile, suburban parish schools expand and improve the often exemplary services and opportunities they provide their students.

At a cost approaching $300 million a year, the archdiocese runs the largest private school system in the country. With 267 elementary schools and eight high schools, it is responsible for the education of more than 130,000 students, saving Illinois taxpayers more than half a billion dollars each year.

Sister Judith Cauley, C.S.J. is Chicago's interim co-superintendent of schools. She hesitates to say that the Chicago system, like other large urban diocesan systems, is in a crisis, but "it is at a crossroads," she admits.

After committing more than $312 million to support Catholic education in Chicago over the past 20 years, Cauley says, "The archdiocese can no longer subsidize the schools. The archdiocese has been very generous over many decades, but at this point it has to be on a corrective course with its own budget."

She says frankly that the "parish-based model" of Catholic education may no longer be viable in large urban centers with high poverty neighborhoods such as Chicago. Cauley calls decisions to seek different models-even when that means closing schools-a question of good stewardship of diocesan resources and justice to lay teachers, who indirectly subsidize struggling schools with substantially reduced salaries.

"Business cannot go on as usual," she says. "We will probably always see some parish schools, but I think we will see more regional models; we'll probably see a smaller and stronger system in the future."

Institutional blindness

The foundation for today's urban education crisis was laid when ethnic European Catholics, the sons and daughters of German, Irish, Italian, Polish, and other European immigrants first began moving from the nationality-based parishes their parents and grandparents built and constructed to their own Catholic school system in the nation's suburbs. The parishes they left behind have endured economic decline and are challenged by an aging infrastructure.

But the largest contributor to the deterioration of the urban Catholic school system is a two-decade long decline in enrollment, one accelerated by white flight to the suburbs but also by a dramatic increase in tuition costs. After relying for decades on a virtually cost-free workforce in the form of teaching clergy and religious, Catholic schools in the past 30 years have been forced to adapt to a largely lay professional teaching corps. Over the past decade alone, the percentage of lay faculty increased from 85 percent to its current 93 percent. Though their salaries can lag as much as $20,000 behind counterparts in public schools, the transition to lay teaching staffs has meant enormous increases in tuition.

While many adults educated as parish members in a Catholic parish school may remember as children paying little to nothing for tuition, the average elementary tuition is now approaching $2,000 a year. That figure covers a little more than half the actual cost of a child's education, but it can be more than many families in low-income communities can even fantasize about spending on their children's education. More than 80 percent of elementary schools provide some form of tuition assistance to parents.

Chicago's Father Andrew Greeley is a sociologist and novelist who has made a lifetime study of the American Catholic education system. Asked how the church should respond to the problem of fiscally struggling schools, Greeley says: "Depends on what you mean by the Catholic Church. If you mean the people of the church, it is clear how they respond. There is never a Catholic school that is closed that is not met by an uproar from the people."

Greeley worries that the church hierarchy, perhaps distracted by other issues such as the ongoing shortage of vocations, has not made keeping schools open a high enough priority and are jeopardizing a distinctive cultural support network that has sustained generations of Catholics in America. He thinks church leaders need to acknowledge that permanent "subsidies" to struggling schools must be accepted as a new reality.

"A lot of people are dragging their feet on raising money. . . . It is alleged that we are losing $1 million a month [supporting grant schools in Chicago]. Well, that is a small amount of money in a city the size of Chicago; we should be able to raise $1 million a month.

"It's difficult to alter this mindset" that sees supporting inner-city schools as a "subsidy that's a drag on the church," says Greeley. "The problem is there is little or no effort to reach out to blacks and Hispanics-and the Hispanics are our people! It's more than an institutional indifference; it's an institutional blindness: We just don't see them.

"These are the least of our brothers and sisters and whatever we do for them, we do for Jesus, if you take the gospels seriously. A priest in the suburbs told me we don't have a responsibility to the [urban African American community] because they aren't Catholic and they won't become Catholic. 'It's not evangelization,' he said.

"Well, that's a curious definition of evangelization," says Greeley.

The nation's ongoing problems with race also play some role in the decline of urban Catholic schools. As the church has acknowledged, it is not immune from the sin of racism.

The percentage of nonwhite students in Catholic schools nationwide has more than doubled in the past 30 years to almost 25 percent of all students, and the percentages of non-Catholic students in Catholic schools has risen from 2.7 percent in 1970 to almost 14 percent today. But the percentages of low-income African American, Latino, and non-Catholic students in Catholic schools are even higher when urban Catholic schools are isolated from the national numbers.

Educators talk of racial "tipping points," racial percentages beyond which white families will begin to pull their kids out of an inner-city Catholic school in search of a more "appropriate setting" in another Catholic school where a higher percentage of white students prevails. That can often mean those families best financially equipped to support a struggling school are gone.

Some parishes maintain schools where more than two thirds of the students are non-Catholic and where large percentages of their students' families are having a tough time affording tuition. That combination can be a disaster because it can lead to a parish school with both a declining enrollment and a weakening commitment from its parish community.

 And that's a tragic circumstance for both these inner-city students and U.S. society as a whole. Studies indicate that African American and Latino students even in the most dire economic circumstances benefit substantially from their experience in Catholic schools.

The future is Latino

The survival of inner-city Catholic schools is of acute interest to members of the nation's fastest growing "minority" and the Catholic Church's fastest growing community: "Education is one of the most pressing issues for Hispanics," says Alejandro Aguilera-Titus, assistant director of the Secretariat for Hispanic Affairs at the U.S. Catholic Conference in Washington.

With an overall high school drop-out rate at a staggering 30 percent-and drop-out rates substantially higher in most urban areas-Hispanics are leaving school at 2.5 times the rate for African American teens and 3.5 times the rate for white, non-Hispanic kids. Only 54 percent of Hispanics over 25 have graduated from high school and only 9.3 percent from college. This compares with 83 percent and 24 percent respectively in the general U.S. population. Hispanics endure a poverty rate of over 25 percent-double the national average.

These figures should not just worry U.S. Hispanics. By some estimates, Hispanics will comprise nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population by 2010 and over half the population by 2050. If Hispanic poverty and low educational achievement persist unchallenged, it is hard to imagine how general prosperity in the United States can be maintained through the next century.

"There is no doubt that there are enough Hispanic young people to fill almost any number of Catholic schools," Aguilera-Titus says. The problem is access, viability, and diocesan prioritizing, he says.

Tuition costs are simply too high for too many Hispanic families in the United States, and with outreach to Hispanic communities not what it could be, many Hispanic immigrant families are not aware of the scholarships and other support programs they may be able to take advantage of in their communities to get their children into Catholic schools.

"The question is: How can we make the schools viable and how can we train Hispanic Catholics to be leaders of the church for the next generation?" says Aguilera-Titus-the kind of leadership training previous generations of immigrant Catholics could take for granted at their parish schools.

U.S. Catholics need to get beyond a limited understanding of "who belongs," says Aguilera-Titus, whether that means being able to share a parish with people of other ethnic and cultural backgrounds, share a parish school, or better share the resources of a large diocese. "Access has not been there for many, many Hispanic families who would have loved to have their children within the Catholic system. A great sign of hope is when we'll see more Hispanic young people in Catholic schools and a greater role of the Catholic Church in the debate over our public schools.

Hope for survival

Vouchers would prove a substantial aid to an ailing system that arguably provides a vast subsidy to the nation's public system, and administrators like Cauley will continue to remind political leaders not only of the overall value of Catholic education in preparing America's future but also the direct relief Catholic education represents to currently overburdened public systems.

But owing to political resistance and the likely constitutional challenges they face, vouchers appear to be an elusive hope for the survival of urban Catholic schools. The more politically palatable option of tax credits for private school costs is a likelier if less potent source of indirect support to Catholic schools. Already established in some states, tax credits for private school expenses may be offered at the federal level if President George W. Bush's recent education package is accepted in Washington.

Greeley thinks that pressing for vouchers could prove an enormous waste of resources for Catholic leadership. "It's something that [politically] is not going to happen, and if it did, the Supreme Court would just strike it down.

"Don't get me wrong: Having vouchers would be nice, but we didn't need them in the 1930s to keep schools open."

Other options besides closing schools or pounding the pavement for new scholarship monies can be found. Chicago has begun a "tuition covenant" program, detailing to parents the true total costs of their children'seducation and asking those who can to pay the full, "real" cost, typically double current tuition, so that the archdiocese will be better able to direct assistance to lower-income students.

In Wichita, Kansas both elementary and high school Catholic education are offered free to all students whose families are parish members. Bob Voboril is superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Wichita. He's reluctant to hold up his system for other Catholic districts to emulate, but Chicago's Cauley, for one, calls what's been accomplished in Wichita "an inspiration."

"Catholic education is the responsibility of the entire Catholic community, not just parents," says Voboril. This stewardship model, which he describes as "not a funding mechanism, but a spirituality," evolved over a period of years.

By taking the primary responsibility for funding schools back to the parish level through stewardship, he says Wichita has been able to avoid a situation where "the principal becomes a full-time fund-raiser or the schools are kept open on the backs of poor parents or teachers who are already underpaid."

Because of stewardship, parents with low incomes also don't have to swallow their pride in search of tuition support or scholarship money, an experience Voboril thinks prevents a lot of parents from sending their kids to parish schools.

"Here if you make a good faith effort to pay your share [at the parish level], you have a full place at the table." Voboril says Wichita's model encourages parish members to be more involved in the success of the students they are, after all, supporting and encourages families to be more involved in their parishes.

Students who are not parishioners must pay tuition, but at a reduced rate subsidized by the diocese. Wichita has seen its enrollment levels rise in each of the past 13 years.

Voboril says Hispanic enrollment in Wichita is up 60 percent since 1994 and the ethnic breakdown within the schools mirrors the broader community's. "It's a continuing conversion. Every day in every parish there are people examining how their relationship with God fits in with their responsibility to the parish."

Mission possible

The long-term survival of Catholic schools in American cities is probably most dependent on various fundraising, parish twinning, and scholarship efforts. Unfortunately, suburban Catholics, whose schools already tend to do well both fiscally and academically, may not feel too compelled to dig into their pockets to help. Why should they, after all, support an urban system many of them left behind, that can't pay for itself, and that often is not even educating Catholics?

"A Catholic hospital doesn't ask your religion before it admits you," says Ed Marciniak, president of Loyola University's Institute of Urban Life in Chicago.

"Why should we have Catholic hospitals? We are a church that provides service. We are a church that is interested in doing something for society and the people who live in it. It's our mission."

The NCEA's Kealey agrees. "I would hope that urban Catholic education can be sustained," he says. "We have not challenged the general Catholic population to respond in the way that they can."

Kealey points out that while Catholics have become a wealthy community in the United States, Catholics as a whole historically maintain low levels of charitable giving.

"[Donating to schools] is the same as giving a contribution to the United Way or Catholic Charities. . . . Education is the key to unlocking one's opportunity in life, and if any people should know this, it is the U.S. Catholic population. It was the Catholic education system that brought millions of immigrants out of poverty."

Cauley calls these days a time of profound vulnerability but also of unique opportunity for Catholic education. She insists that, despite the likelihood of more school closings in low-income parishes, the archdiocese remains committed with the American church to a preferential option for the poor, that this crisis is an opportunity for more affluent Catholics to learn to walk in solidarity with other Catholics and other people struggling in poor communities.

"This is certainly a clarion call to all of us to come forward to do what we can to make sure our schools can remain viable," says Cauley, calling a Catholic education the finest evangelization tool the church in America has ever known.

"We have to get a renewed sense of the irreplaceable value of Catholic schools in the lives of Catholic families and community . . . How can we walk in solidarity?

"You don't have to go to another country to find a mission; there's a mission right here in the city," she says.

"We have a tradition; we graduate students who are well-prepared for life, and we want to continue that for many generations to come . . . There should never be a poor school; there should never be a child who is deprived of a Catholic education for financial reasons. That's the challenge for all of us." 

This article appeared in the May 2001 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 66, No. 5, pages 20-24).