In a week’s time, Jan. 6, the Blue Ribbon Commission on Catholic education in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia will issue its long-awaited report. A year in the making, the report is expected to recommend significant and possibly large numbers of closures and consolidations of parish elementary and high schools in the region.
The numbers are likely to be large because the changes will be sweeping. They need to be.
The new year will be the time to restructure and renew Catholic education, and strengthen it for the future. Simply crimping the current system around the edges would only be managing decline. The commission will present a plan to stabilize Catholic education — including parish religious education programs and special education schools along with the elementary and high schools — and bolster its foundation to allow new growth.
The coming changes should surprise no area Catholics. For decades the total population in the region’s urban areas has been dropping, offset only by recent immigration. People have moved from city neighborhoods to the suburbs, and from urbanized towns to newly developing townships. Today’s Catholic families also welcome fewer children than past generations. Where families with four or six children were common years ago, two children are more common today.
Most people have known or at least sensed these facts for a long time. What they may not have understood is the economic model of delivering a Catholic grade school education. Here is the spiral, mostly downward: In a given school building there are fixed costs such as electricity, heat, water and insurance that cannot be reduced significantly. The bygone days of large numbers of religious sisters and priests teaching in schools means that today mostly lay teachers are employed, and they need a living wage with all-important health benefits. The employment costs cannot be much reduced, through fewer teachers and staff, without impairing the quality of education.
The fewer students attending the school, the higher the per-pupil costs — because the school has the same expenses but less income each time it loses students. That means tuition has to rise to compensate. Each time tuition rises, more students drop from the rolls.
How does a school deal with declining tuition income and rising costs? It receives a subsidy. Parishes have always subsidized their schools. But as the spiral takes effect, the parish has to provide more and more subsidy to defray the rising costs and keep the price of tuition affordable. The parish chooses to drain whatever savings it has and curtail other parish operations in order to subsidize the school. Contributions from parishioners fail to keep up with the needs. In some areas, many of the parishioners are elderly and on fixed incomes, and the participation rate of parishioners is not what it once was.
A parish then starts to experience deepening budget deficits each year, often owing the Archdiocese for items such as insurance and utility bills.
This is why 2012 is such a momentous year. The report and recommendations on restructuring Catholic education are due soon. Parish initiatives to restructure are also well under way, as is an examination of archdiocesan finances. Each step of this honest assessment of Catholic life in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia will elicit strong emotion as any change does.
But every Catholic needs to face two realities of the present moment. The first is that change is a constant part of life and this moment of change, though difficult, is necessary now. The second reality is that all Catholics need to step up and express their strong Catholic faith. That faith shone during the recent funeral for Cardinal John Foley, watched by so many on television and the Internet. It shone during Christmas as packed churches welcomed the faithful to God’s word and sacrament at the Eucharistic table.
Faith will make fruitful the shared work of the coming changes. Generations of Catholics in the past built the expressions of faith we enjoy today, including parishes and schools. Despite the necessary closures and mergers, we honor our Catholic forebears by working as they did in the face of difficulty to live the Catholic faith and hand it on to our children.