THE DECLINE of the Philadelphia region's Catholic school system is old news. In Philly alone, the Archdiocese now plans to close 18 elementary schools and two high schools. But between 2000 and 2010, the city lost 23 Catholic grade schools and two Catholic high schools, and total enrollments in Philly Catholic schools fell from about 50,000 to around 30,000. The city's public charter schools have more students than its Catholic schools.
The decline would have been even steeper were it not for the influx of non-Catholic students - who are a quarter of the city's Catholic grade-school enrollment - and the tens of millions of dollars pumped into the Catholic school system by the Children's Scholarship Fund of Philadelphia, Business Leaders Organized for Catholic Schools and numerous family foundations and individual philanthropists. The question, then, is not whether some bold plan is needed. It is.
As someone who is the product of the region's Catholic schools, from Saint Laurence to Bonner to Saint Joe's University, and who has daughters enrolled in St. Thomas the Apostle, which is slated to become a host site for a regional school and Cardinal O'Hara, which will pick up students from West Catholic and Bonner/Prendergrast, I have a personal stake in the matter.
If Catholic education is to have a real and brighter future in Philadelphia and the surrounding counties - if scores more Catholic schools are not to close in this region, and if a day is yet to dawn when some once-closed schools may actually be reopened - then the commission's plan needs to be modified on the merits now.
* First, the Archdiocese has a moral, if not a legal or contractual, obligation to provide more than indirect support to the dedicated Catholic school teachers who will lose their jobs. Some substantial job-placement program is needed to help displaced teachers find other ways to earn their daily bread and have more than a prayer of making ends meet in this bad economy.
* Second, the Archdiocese should practice what it preaches about school vouchers by allowing the faithful in the shuttered schools to attend the Catholic elementary school of their choice. A student's parish should give them a voucher, equal in value to whatever subsidy they can provide, and which the student can use at the school of his or her choice. This Catholic voucher program will certainly increase the number of students who want to attend a Catholic school, but do not wish to attend the school assigned to them by the Archdiocese.
* Third, the commission should reverse its decision that the new regional schools must adopt new names and cannot use the names of one of the existing schools. That approach will do nothing to alleviate the pain that the students and families in the shuttered schools will feel, and it is guaranteed to alienate and anger the current students, their families and the alumni in the schools that will serve as the host sites of the regional schools. Forcing name changes will make the transition go less, not more, smoothly.
* Fourth, the commission also should allow the transition committees that are being established for the regionalized schools to decide for themselves whether the regional school will open in 2012 or 2013. The commission, despite its good-faith efforts, plainly did not do enough to include the input of students and parents in the decision-making process. It has made only nominal progress in including parents in the decision-making process going forward. The commission was filled with well-intentioned Catholic faithful, but the views of lower- and middle-income families who are trying to educate their children were underrepresented. Those faithful families who sacrifice to pay tuition and who are most directly impacted by these changes ought to co-determine the pace and the details of the transition to the regionalized school.
* Fifth, the parish model in which the pastor-priest is "CEO" of everything, including the parish school, was a dinosaur two decades ago and needs to become extinct. In its place should be the Catholic version of "charter schools" - certifiably Catholic schools that have their own boards of directors and become administrative tubs on their own bottoms. With empowered boards of directors at the school level, the county advisory councils recommended by the commission are unnecessary and their very existence could impede progress at the school level.
* Finally, it is vital to note that empirical research by my Penn colleague Dr. Ram Cnaan shows that local churches and faith-based schools, not least the Catholic ones, function largely as sacred places that serve civic purposes. And as Partners for Sacred Places, a national nonprofit organization based in Philadelphia, has documented, Catholic community-serving institutions have especially robust local economic development and other "halo effects."
Thus, Catholic or not, going forward we all have a civic stake in pulling for Archbishop Chaput and other leaders of all faiths and of no faith to find ways of saving, supporting, and strengthening what remains of the Catholic school system in the Philly region. I believe it can yet be done; but, then again, I believe in miracles.