The One Way the Archdiocese of Philadelphia Could Have Prevented School Closings
What does it tell you when the private Notre Dame Academy in Villanova has 101 students in its freshman class—at $20,000 per year—and Archbishop Prendergast in Drexel Hill, an Archdiocesan high school, has … 82? That the economy is booming because folks can shell out 20K a pop? That the gap between rich and poor is widening, with more people in the “have” category? Not quite.
It tells us, in no uncertain terms, two things:
1) Over the last several decades, too many leaders in the Catholic Church have strayed from their godly mission, trying to be all things to all people, destroying the Catholic identity, and, worst of all, covering up the child sex scandal and protecting pedophile priests. The result has been, and continues to be, apathy for most, anger for many, and an exodus from the Church for thousands of others. The Church has reaped what it has sown, and nowhere is that more evident than the 30 percent decrease in Catholic school enrollment in Archdiocesan schools.
2) The Catholic Church, for all its money, muscle and might, has been a political paper tiger in fighting for its beliefs, most notably school choice. For the last 15 years, it either didn’t do its job to ensure passage of legislation that would provide a voucher to parents (their own tax money) to send their children to the school of their choice, or it backed meaningless and ineffective bills. Either way, if the Church had done its job effectively without cowering at the sight of its own shadow, only a handful of the 49 schools that closed recently—and the scores everyone seems to be forgetting that have been shuttered over the last decade—would be out of business. In fact, most would be thriving.
The Prendie situation tells it all. While officially having “open enrollment” where physical or Church boundaries are not criteria for admission, Prendie still traditionally draws from Catholic “feeder schools,” as does its brother school, Monsignor Bonner (119 in its freshman class). Do the math. If we conservatively estimate that there are 22 elementary schools serving those high schools, that’s fewer than four girls per school going to Prendie, and just six attending Bonner. No wonder they closed!
(Though a strong case can be made to consolidate the two schools, many believe the Archdiocese will not do so because a nearby hospital may be eyeing the land. With potentially millions more in abuse settlements, the Church may need the proceeds of that sale to pay those large amounts—just as the Boston Archdiocese sold 99 acres of prime real estate to Boston College to pay settlements. Closing schools to pay sex-scandal settlements just infuriates Catholics that much more, leading to a vicious circle of yanking students from Catholic schools altogether).
And why are the elementary schools not sending more students? Two reasons. Many parents are choosing public schools because they don’t feel the value of Catholic high school is justified at a $6,000 price tag. And of course, there aren’t many students left in Catholic elementary schools in the first place. Take Annunciation BVM in Irish Catholic Havertown. It is slated to close, allegedly because there aren’t enough students in attendance (though they hit the attendance number the Diocese mandated and are one of a handful of schools with a parish surplus). But a drive through the town will instinctively tell you what any demographic statistician already knows: The Catholic population is more than healthy enough to see Annunciation at 80 percent capacity—or even more.
The proof? In 1911, there were 68,000 students in Archdiocesan schools, out of 525,000 Catholics (in a diocese, by the way, that was considerably larger in size than the one today). A century later, we are back at the same level of 68,000 (down from a peak of 250,000 in the 1960s), yet the smaller-sized Archdiocese now has almost 1.5 million Catholics. Those numbers clearly show that, for most areas (inner-city Philadelphia being an exception), the Catholic population is absolutely large enough to support most of the schools that closed.
Taking out of the equation those parents who are angry or disenfranchised with the Church (and its schools), there still remains a substantial number of families that would love nothing better than to enroll their children, but simply cannot afford to do so.
Enter school choice in Pennsylvania. Or lack thereof.
In 1995, a statewide, comprehensive school choice bill failed by a single vote. And while the Church played an active role in that fight, it refused to do the things necessary that would have pushed the legislation across the finish line. Priests should have been preaching from the pulpit, educating parishioners on the merits of school choice and rallying the troops to contact their legislators (which can clearly be done without jeopardizing their nonprofit status). But overall, they didn’t.
They could have placed pro-school choice cards addressed to representatives and senators in each pew, to be filled out during Mass and collected before exiting church. But they didn’t.
And they could have tied all of it together by playing hardball with wishy-washy politicians, informing them in no uncertain terms that school choice would be the one and only issue that many Catholics would be voting on—and Catholics vote—in the next election. But they didn’t.
Instead, too many left the battle to the “insiders,” and guess what? Choice failed, and schools closed.
Fast forward to 2011. What did the Church do? Support the weakest, most meaningless education reform bill that would have neither helped educate nor reform anything (Senate Bill 1). It was so restrictive that it would not have affected one middle class family, but the final version (which bombed) seemed to cater only to those Capricorns in the inner city who promised to wear plaid pants on Tuesdays.
The Catholic Conference’s rationale for supporting such a bad bill? Incrementalism was the only way to go, and, after all, that was the only bill out there. Talk about a losing mentality. Maybe if the Catholic leaders in their ivory towers had the foresight to see what was coming down the pike with school closings, they would have made a broad-based bill a reality. And since the 1995 bill was run with a somewhat hostile legislature and still almost passed, it should have been a no-brainer to aggressively push for a bill this time that would also help the middle class, since the governor and legislature were infinitely more amenable to such a bill.
But they didn’t.
And they didn’t even push for an expansion of the educational improvement tax credit (EITC) after school choice failed, which, while not a panacea, would certainly help.
Now, all people will suffer the financial consequences. Of the more than 24,000 students displaced, a significant number will now attend public school. And since it costs more than $15,000 per student, per year to educate a public school student, property taxes are about to go through the roof, which could not come at a worse time. Not only will more textbooks and buses have to be purchased, but the public system will now require more teachers, more modular classrooms, and, quite soon, more capital projects to accommodate the influx of Catholic school students.
Some claim that school choice is a bailout of the Catholic schools. Wrong. Since the money is directed to the parent, not the school, it clearly isn’t. But it will be interesting to see the reaction from critics of school choice (and Catholicism in general) when they can no longer afford to pay their property taxes. As the saying goes, what goes around comes around.
Where do we go from here?
There is a passage from a book written in the 1987 book, God’s Children, that best sums up why Catholic education must be saved:
The Catholic Church must forget its inferiority complex. No other religion is reluctant to ask for what it wants. If we don’t ask, if we don’t stand up and fight for what we believe in, we can’t expect to win. Life is a street fight. We can roll up our sleeves and jump in, not certain whether we’ll win or lose, or walk away, allowing a huge part of our heritage to disappear.
If we fail, what do we tell the ghosts? The nuns and priests who for two centuries devoted their lives to the cause? The men and women, like our parents, who broke their backs to support their families yet somehow found a way to support our schools? Do we tell them that it’s over, that their legacy has disappeared forever? That we couldn’t hold on to what they gave us?
And most haunting: “I don’t want to tell my children and grandchildren that I was around when time ran out on Catholic education.”
Is it that time? Put it this way. Anyone who believes that the closings are done is simply deluding himself, for shutting down schools is a Band-Aid solution to a gaping wound that will continue to hemorrhage.
That is, unless the Archdiocese of Philadelphia somehow finds a leader with the courage of his convictions, someone willing to “roll up his sleeves” and fight for what is right.
Archbishop Chaput, your 15 minutes are upon you, and the floor is yours. Godspeed!
Read Chris Freind’s analysis of the Catholic Church’s identity crisis here.