Thursday, January 29, 2015

"We Are Humbled" – For Catholic Schools, The Future Needs "New Partners"

Now a cherished tradition of this last week of January, as Catholic Schools Week is observed across the nation – and these days, even beyond – the place of the church's education apparatus at the core of the American Catholic legend (and far beyond the pews at that) bears grateful recalling... all the more given the degree to which this priceless, indeed heroic legacy finds itself under siege.

According to CARA stats, the period from 2010 to 2014 saw the biggest crunch to date in the US' presence of Catholic elementary schools – amid almost 500 closings, a nearly 8 percent drop to just shy of 5,400 nationwide. On the bright side, while earlier cycles' gradual decline of secondary education appears to have stabilized in the range of 1,200 schools, like so much else on these shores, the figures mask what's increasingly become a tale of two Stateside churches: a slow, ongoing fade in the surpassed empires of the Northeast and Upper Midwest, while new high schools have begun to emerge at an impressive clip for the burgeoning Catholic presence in points South and West.

All told, between diocesan and order-run entities, today the nation's Catholic schools serve almost 2 million students – 800,000 more when colleges and universities are thrown in. Then there are the stats everybody loves to hear: nationwide, Catholic education sees 99 percent of its high schoolers graduate while saving taxpayers some $20 billion a year. Still, especially on the K-12 front, the challenges of the future only grow steeper on all sides, ranging from spikes in benefit premiums and maintaining aging buildings in often poor and violent cities to the lure of well-subsidized public education in the suburbs (an aspect ironically due to the assimilation Catholic schools largely made possible), all while the latest generation of the church's immigrant parents often find the option out of reach for their children due to its ever-increasing costs.

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To date, no "silver bullet" has been found to successfully solve the crises.... Then again, the reality's always been there – but just like any other work in the church, so long as it keeps falling on deaf ears that the effort requires a more substantive investment from the faithful than their nostalgia, demands and decibel levels, nothing will change. So at least until that does, one aspect of the very charged scene now merits even closer watching.

Much as it infuriates some folks that the ninth archbishop of Chicago is a relatively out-of-the-box thinker, Blase Cupich's penchant for finding the unconventional yet workable goes a long way toward explaining how he landed Stateside Catholicism's Appointment of the Decade.

While the approach is key on any number of fronts, none looms larger than education – with 84,000 students in 244 schools, the Chicago archdiocesan system is by far the nation's largest private education apparatus. (For purposes of comparison, despite an even larger Catholic population, the New York church's schools have 15,000 fewer kids.) Accordingly, as these pages reported when the nod broke, it was no accident that the bishop-chair of the NCEA was being sent to the Windy City, with finding a way forward for the schools that could be imitated elsewhere quite possibly the most crucial facet of his mandate – and indeed, the one with the most far-reaching implications.

Already, Chicago's revered Big Shoulders Fund awards $12 million in grants and scholarships annually within the archdiocesan system, but even that level of stable infusion doesn't ensure long-term sustainability. To that end, before his retirement Cardinal Francis George had chartered To Teach Who Christ Is, a four-year capital campaign strictly for local Catholic education, whose staggering $350 million goal represents the largest fundraising project in memory undertaken by a US diocese.

While the campaign is slated to wrap in late 2016, another fresh curveball recently surfaced – after six years at the schools' helm, Dominican Sr Mary Paul McCaughey retired as Chicago's superintendent last month, keeping the plan she had made prior to the transition of archbishops. Amid the sky-high stakes in what's quickly become a majority-Hispanic archdiocese (a demographic all the more dominant among its young families), a national search for McCaughey's successor is already underway.

Fresh on the heels of his most extensive interview since taking the chair, all this served as the backdrop for Cupich's most significant address since his installation homily in November: a Tuesday morning talk on the future of Catholic education in Chicago at a Schools Week breakfast for 400 in the city's famous Drake Hotel.

With the city's and schools' leaders alike on hand and the now-customary phalanx of media packed in, below is the archbishop's fulltext and video of his outlook for the nation's largest Catholic system.

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The Future of Catholic Education in the Archdiocese of Chicago

It is very energizing for me to look around the room this morning and see so many willing partners already invested in our Catholic Schools. All of you have my deep admiration and gratitude, not only for attending this breakfast, but also for the obvious commitment you have to our families, students, faculty, staff, administrations and parishes, which make up the communities within our school system. These first few weeks of my service as the Archbishop of Chicago have convinced me that there is no challenge or issue facing us for which we do not have the needed human and other resources. Your being here today steels me in that conviction.

The organizers of this event have asked me to address the topic The Future of Catholic Education in the Archdiocese of Chicago; however, before I get into the future, I think it is good to say a few words about the past. My aim in doing so is to highlight how far we have come and to draw attention to the need to redouble our efforts if we are going to be true to a proud heritage. I will end my remarks by speaking about the opportunities and the urgency of this moment for all adults to partner together for our children. As Catholics, this is a moment for us to adapt to new developments and challenges with a humility that is equal to our pride in order for our Catholic schools to build on the legacy handed on to us, a legacy that has benefitted our faith and civic communities.

A Proud Past

We are here today because of what happened 130 years ago this past fall. The Bishops of the United States, 75 in all, met for the Third Council of Baltimore from November 9 to December 7, 1884, and among other things decreed the following with regard to Catholic schools:

  • Parochial schools are an absolute necessity and every parish is obliged to have a school.
  • Pastors are obligated to establish a Catholic school in their parishes.
  • Parents are required to send their children to a Catholic school unless they get permission from the bishop.
  • Schools should be free if need be.
The decrees about schools from the Council of Baltimore were fairly well followed as the rule, not just the norm, until about the early 1970s - at least that was my experience growing up in Omaha, Nebraska. When parishes were established no permission to build a church was given by the archbishop until the school was up and running. I am sure many of you had the experience of attending Mass celebrated in school halls or gyms in newly established parishes until the Church could be built.

Of course much has changed over these 130 years; consider these comparisons: In 1884, the Catholic population numbered about 3 million; today, it’s 70 million. There were 127 parishes in 1884; today, 17,000. One hundred and thirty years ago there were 59 schools with 22,000 students; today 1300 high schools with 612,000 students and 5500 elementary schools with 1.4 million students.

The Present Moment

Yes, we are here because of that legacy of commitment made 130 years ago and renewed in every generation since then. But we are also here today because we, our Church and society, have benefited from that legacy and want to see it continue and prosper. Undoubtedly, the world and the Church are much different than in the days of the Baltimore Council and some of these decrees seem out of touch with reality. Let’s start with the most obvious one. Parents are required to send their children to Catholic schools unless they get my permission. I don’t seem to be getting any traction on that one; I guess they didn’t get the memo!

While some aspects of these decisions by the bishops 130 years ago seem outdated, we should focus on what is at the heart of their commitment to Catholic schools. It was a three-fold conviction: first, that education is mediated by communities in which the adults sacrifice and make demands of each other for the benefit of children; second, that adults are linked to a tradition of passing on faith and knowledge that works; and third, that there must be an intentional aim of giving youth the tools to be the next generation of adults who will continue that legacy for the good of the Church and society.

In short, we have an educational system not only that works but is designed to perpetuate itself for the benefit of our faith communities and the civic order. Just one set of figures brings home our claim that our system works and contributes to the greater good: 95% of the children who attend our schools graduate from high school and these graduates statistically are four times more likely to vote in elections. That might be a wake-up call for some here today.

My point is simple. Our system of education works; it benefits society and deserves support so that it can continue. We are proud that the Archdiocese of Chicago school system has the largest number of National Blue Ribbon schools of any system of schools, public or private, in the country. We are equally proud that each year the Archdiocesan family, through the Annual Catholic Appeal and our parish contributions, provides over $30 million dollars of financial support to our schools, and that is beyond the good work other organizations like the Big Shoulders Fund, religious communities, other foundations and partners are providing. Financial aid is needed because of the large number of financially needy students we educate. We value that diversity; it makes us better.

Tuition assistance has allowed young people in need to attend our schools. It has given them a chance to achieve so much in the world, such as four of the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices who attended Catholic schools, three of whom received some form of tuition assistance.

Proud but Humble

While there is justifiable pride in how far we have come, there must be an equal humility as we move into the future.

We are humbled that we have come so far because of the great sacrifice that religious women have made since the early days of the Church in this country. They built our school system and we should never forget that;

We are humbled that this legacy of sacrifice continues today in people like Katie Olsen and her colleagues. Presently we are able to operate at lower costs, sometimes at half the rate of other school systems, because our teachers and staff take a fraction of the salary allotted in other school systems. They are continuing the sacrifice begun by the religious sisters and we should not forget that either; 

We are humbled by the increasing attraction our school system has for minorities and low income families, who have the aspirations of all parents, to better the lives of their children;

We are humbled by the challenges of shifting demographics that place pressures on our parishes and schools, calling for creative and imaginative solutions that go beyond past parish boundaries;

We are humbled that much of our infrastructure built decades ago has to be a factor in making decisions about the future; and

We are humbled that today people relate to their parishes differently than in the past, due in part to greater mobility in the work force and the loss of ethnic loyalties that once bound communities together. This new kind of relationship, at times, can cause tensions as pastoral leaders try to understand how their schools fit into the mission of the parish.

Yes, there are challenges that humble us, but they are nowhere near the ones that faced the Church 130 years ago. We have the human and other resources to address them, but we need to do this together and, in all humility, invite new partners.

Making our system of education stronger, and particularly more available to families in need of financial aid, is at the heart of the To Teach Who Christ Is Campaign. Its aim is to bolster and sustain the tuition assistance we provide to tens of thousands of children who attend our 240 schools, served by over 7,000 tax paying teachers.

Despite these private efforts, we still need other partners, simply because our school system each year attracts more and more families who are in need, many minority families, many of whom are not Catholic. We educate them not because they are or ever will be Catholic; we educate them because we are Catholic and we have a proven product, are good at it and they know it.

Yet, there is a limit to how much we can do. While it is true that nationwide Catholic schools save taxpayers over $20 billion each year, it is also true that the likelihood of continuing this legacy is in doubt without some adjustment that will give families a choice through government cooperation. There are promising signs that many citizens in this country and in our state recognize in greater numbers the benefit of giving school choice to families. They see that we can educate children in quality programs for less, that we have a good product, and that our students grow up to be good citizens. But the contrary is also true. If the state were to lose more Catholic schools, it will increase the burden on taxpayers. I am aware that many good people associated with Ed Choice, which I fully support, are working with many of our elected officials on legislation that will provide tax incentives for individuals and corporations to increase donations to scholarship providers for parochial schools, and also provide significant additional dollars to public and charter schools.

I want to be clear. This is not about pitting private/parochial schools versus public and charter schools; the effort aims to support all three sectors so that all families have access to a high quality school, no matter what sector they choose. Recently, a reporter asked me if I felt as though the Catholic schools were not getting enough credit for the way they help public school budgets, taking the costs of so many students off the tax rolls. My answer was simply: “I don’t think in those terms. As far as I am concerned, no matter what school they are in, they are all our children.”

That is my invitation to all the citizens of this state and especially our elected officials. Let’s remember that they are all our children. We bring to the table our tradition of challenging each other as adults to sacrifice and make demands of each other for the benefit of our children. We bring to the table our tradition of passing on faith and knowledge that works for the benefit of our children and society. We bring to the table our tradition of intentionally aiming to give youth the tools to be the next generation of adults who will continue that legacy for the good of the Church and society. We ask others to join us in that tradition and vision by supporting the To Teach Who Christ Is Campaign and by partnering in the efforts to give all parents and families a choice when it comes to the education of their children.

We are proud of the past, but we are equally humble about the future. In humility, we recognize that we have many reasons to be thankful for the sacrifices of so many in the past. We also understand that new partnerships are necessary to continue the legacy handed on to us. I welcome the challenge of making the case for new partnerships and the opportunity to invite you to join me in building on all that we have received. Your presence today makes me proud but keeps me humble in knowing none of us can do this alone. Thank you for your support.