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Sean Kennedy: Children need leaders to save Catholic schools

Charles Chaput

Charles Chaput

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Updated: April 21, 2013 6:33AM

Some 2 million American children, including 85,000 in the Chicago area, need leaders to act fast to save dying Catholic schools.

Since 2000, Catholic leaders have shuttered 2,000 schools across the United States, with no end in sight. In February, the Archdiocese of Chicago announced it would join the litany of urban dioceses that chose quitting over reform. Five Catholic schools will be closed and 14 percent of diocese staff will be laid off.

With few exceptions, this has been the approach taken by dioceses: When a school faces financial trouble and quick fixes prove ineffective, shutter the doors and walk away.

In 1961, Catholic schools educated 5.2 million American children, or 1 out of every 10. Today, there are just as many school-age children, but the Catholic share has fallen precipitously to under 2 million pupils.

Last year, the charter school system surpassed the Catholic Church as the second largest school system in the United States, with over 2.1 million pupils.

Abe Lackman of Albany Law School concluded, based on research in New York State, that charter schools have accelerated the decline of Catholic schools as parents choose the low-cost (free) competitor over the local parish school.

The competition is real, and if Catholic schools do not rise to the challenge, they will be doing a disservice to parents, students and taxpayers. Catholic schools have an unparalleled track record preparing poor and middle-income kids for college and life success, supporting local communities, and keeping children safe and out of jail. Not only does this form of school choice improve lives, it saves Chicago-area taxpayers’ almost $100 million dollars a year since private funds pay to educate Catholic children.

A handful of Catholic leaders have recognized the problem and decided to act.

In 2011, the Philadelphia Archdiocese shuttered 20 percent of its schools. Then newly installed Archbishop Charles Chaput was asked to approve the closure of four more high schools the following year. He said no. He cast about for better solutions.

The Philadelphia Archdiocese devolved control of its 17 remaining high schools to a new independent foundation, Faith in the Future, led by Catholics committed to sustaining Catholic education. The group has instituted governance, finance and academic reforms. The collective deficit of the high schools has been slashed from $6 million to $500,000 in one year. Enrollment is up.

The foundation’s executive director, Casey Carter, is committed to driving excellence and efficiency simultaneously — through experimentation and innovation. One technique Carter is pursuing is “blended learning,” an instructional method that individualizes student learning through online content that collects data to support teachers. Teachers can target student learning and adjust lessons to suit every child’s needs in real-time.

Elsewhere, two Catholic elementary schools — Mission Dolores in San Francisco and St. Therese in Seattle — successfully implemented the model to achieve a financial and academic turnaround. Mission Dolores’ per pupil costs are down 20 percent in two years — and student scores are up.

There’s hope for Chicago’s Catholic schools. They just need leadership.

Sean Kennedy is a fellow at the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Va.

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