Realism Needed to Save School System, Philadelphia Archbishop Says

Archbishop Charles Chaput speaks at press conference in Philadelphia Jan. 6.
Archbishop Charles Chaput speaks at press conference in Philadelphia Jan. 6. (photo: CNA photo)

Philadelphia, Pa. — Catholic schools must move forward with hope and realism, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput said as his education commission announced school mergers and closings in a Jan. 6 report.

“We need to honor the great history of Catholic education in our archdiocese. But we must not be constrained by it,” the archbishop said in a letter to the Blue Ribbon Commission. “Nostalgia for the past is a bad foundation if we want to think clearly and build creatively for the future.”

He praised the authors of the “Faith in the Future” report for their “courage in facing the hard financial realities burdening many of our schools,” nearly 50 of which may be closed or merged.

During hard times, he said, “justice requires that we use our resources to best effect,” while pursuing “new forms of governance, government advocacy and foundation funding.”

“It is not enough for Catholic education to survive,” Archbishop Chaput stated. “It needs to grow, and we cannot make that happen with old behaviors and models of operation.”

“The goal of Catholic education remains the same: We need to give our young people a zeal for the Catholic faith and a strong moral character, and in our schools, a superior academic curriculum. But how we achieve that goal should always be open to change.”

Major changes are in store after the release of the Blue Ribbon Commission’s report, part of a process begun by Archbishop Chaput’s predecessor Cardinal Justin Rigali in December 2010.
The commission, which continued its work under Archbishop Chaput, found many schools struggling to survive and lacking plans for recovery. During its consultation process, the group heard from teachers, business leaders, clergy, parents and pastors in monthly meetings.

In his introduction to the report, commission chairman John Quindlen said group members were “unanimous” in their belief that Catholic schools “have a great future — if they are wisely led.”

“Commission members are equally unanimous that current financial losses cannot be justified or sustained,” Quindlen wrote.

“Strategic decisions about our Catholic schools have already been delayed too long at great cost. Now these decisions are urgent. They cannot in good conscience or sound stewardship be delayed.”

The commission found that up to 45 of the archdiocese’s 156 elementary or regional schools “cannot be sustained” because of their deficits and the debt accumulated by associated parishes. These schools will merge with others in the archdiocese.

The commission also found declining enrollment and financial challenges in several of the archdiocese’s 17 high schools. It supports a plan developed by the Archdiocesan Board of Education, under which four of the schools would close.

Along with these changes, a new governance model will go into effect, with an Executive Board of Education chaired by an auxiliary bishop. Individual boards will be formed to oversee elementary schools, secondary schools, religious education and special education.

Steps will also be taken to strengthen the Catholic identity of schools — which the report said was the “very reason for (their) existence” – and to address parents’ concerns about tuition through a new fundraising foundation.

Members of the Blue Ribbon Commission acknowledged that the school mergers and closings “will cause significant pain and change in the lives of children, families and alumni.”

Rita Schwartz, president of the Association of Catholic Teachers in the archdiocese, told the Associated Press that the news was “extremely sad” and had sparked a “grieving process” in elementary and high schools.

But the commission members said that closing and merging schools was “not a decision that was made easily or in a vacuum.”

Rather, they said, it took into account “the best interest of all the students and parents who are committed to ensuring that Catholic education in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia remains
strong and vibrant.”

Archbishop Chaput praised the commission members for their willingness to acknowledge hard realities and develop a forward-looking response.

“Over the next 18 months, in the spirit of the report, we should examine all our education efforts and structures for their effectiveness,” he told them in his letter.

The archbishop also noted that “any serious proposal” from donors or community leaders should receive consideration going forward, “so long as we serve our Catholic identity and mission” in the process.

Archbishop Chaput also expressed his closeness to families affected by the closings and mergers, in a separate Jan. 6 letter.

“Please be sure of my understanding and support in what may come as difficult news for your family,” he told parents and guardians in the letter. “We are dedicated to assisting you and your family during this time of transition.”