Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Three Proposals Regarding Catholic Schools

Applying the Bishops' Recent Statement to the Archdiocese of Mobile

The United States Bishops recently wrote a pastoral letter on Catholic schools, entitled “Renewing our Commitment to Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools” (2005). In this statement the bishops commit to the goal “of making Catholic education available, accessible and affordable to all Catholics and their children, including the poor and the middle class. “ This commitment is the right one, the bishops say, because “Catholic schools afford the fullest and best opportunity to realize the fourfold purpose of Christian education: namely to provide an atmosphere in which the Gospel message is proclaimed, community in Christ is experienced, service to our sisters and brothers is the norm, and thanksgiving and worship of our God is cultivated”.

As a practical matter, if it’s true that our Catholic schools provide the fullest and best opportunity for the education of our children, how do we ensure the future health of these schools in our archdiocese? I would like to pull out three ideas from this letter and suggest concrete ways for making them happen here:

1) Under the section on finances, the bishops write:

"The burden of supporting our Catholic schools can no longer be placed exclusively on the individual parishes that have schools and on parents who pay tuition. This will require all Catholics, including those in parishes without schools, to focus on the spirituality of stewardship."

I agree, but this is too much of an abstraction to prompt a plan of action. In our diocese, most parishes with Catholic K-8 elementary schools spend a hugely disproportionate share of their parish tithe on Catholic education compared to those parishes without schools. Yes, the parishes without schools subsidize the Catholic school dependent on the number of children from their parish that attend the nearby Catholic school, but this subsidy doesn’t even begin to even out the parish resources being spent between the two.

Therefore, I propose: Establish a diocesan parish tax for our Catholic schools based on a percentage of the annual parish tithe. This is in effect how we run our chancery offices, levying a 5% tax on the total income of each parish. The monies collected could be used as an archdiocesan scholarship fund for needy families or used to defray operational expenses in our schools, keeping tuitions lower for all.

2) The bishops remark further:

"While we have made progress in opening offices for development, endowments, marketing, and institutional advancement, we must expand those efforts on both the diocesan and local levels… Diocesan and school leaders should continue actively to pursue financial support from the business and civic communities. Our total Catholic community must increase efforts to address the financial needs of our Catholic school administrators, teachers, and staff."

In our diocese, whatever progress we've made in development, endowments and marketing relative to Catholic schools has been a function of individual schools, and not the diocese as a whole. Schools with resources have hired development directors, but the schools who arguably need it most cannot afford such a "luxury". Therefore I propose an archdiocesan endowment fund for Catholic schools. This is hardly radical, as many dioceses all over the country have begun such funds years ago, some with great success. Once the fund has reached a pre-determined level, the interest can be used for the benefit of scholarships for needy families or to offset operational costs.

The advantages of a diocesan endowment fund vs. local school endowment funds are many: First, an archdiocesan fund allows the bishop to be a major actor in the solicitation of funds (perhaps through an annual appeal, similar to Catholic Charities). Second, poorer schools and parishes don’t have the kind of affluent connections which make fund-raising a success. Third, larger businesses are likelier to give a single donation to a single annual cause than to the thousands of small causes, which each of their employees may champion. Finally, we can entrust our diocesan funds to professional money managers, rather than expect our beleaguered principals or pastors to make informed investment decisions.

3. The bishops write:

“Our challenge today is to provide schools close to where our Catholic people live. In areas where there currently are no Catholic schools, we should open schools that have a mission to evangelize.”

The current configuration of our Catholic schools is the result of historical happenstance, with little system-wide planning since. This isn't so much a criticism of anyone, as a recognition that our schools were formed as parochial structures, serving the needs of individual parishes. But our parochial assumptions now need a critical re-evaluation. Schools in once thriving neighborhoods are now in poorer areas, struggling to say open. Three schools in our diocese have closed in the last five years, with several more hanging on heroically. Rather than allow a kind of Darwinian evolution to take place, I propose we commission the equivalent of a “Blue Ribbon Commission” (ala the BRAC commission regarding military base realignments) to study the needs of Catholic education through-out our entire diocese, recommending new Catholic schools where the evidence suggest they will thrive (a Catholic high school in Baldwin County? an elementary school in Autauga/Elmore County?) and recommending the regionalization of schools where appropriate. Of course, the bishop would have to approve any of these recommendations.

Having worked in our archdiocese for over twenty years now, I know these are unsettling proposals. I also know that unless we begin to think creatively, the magnificent gift to our local church which is Catholic education is in peril. Left on their own, our Catholic schools will die….one school at a time.

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