The Archdiocese of Washington is working very hard to preserve Catholic Education. We are organizing finances and people to ensure a future for Catholic Education in the Archdiocese. The challenges are significant but our commitment is real. Before sharing some of the details of the plan I would like to reflect on some of the background issues that have put Catholic Schools in jeopardy.
- The decline in the number of practicing Catholics. While it is true that the overall number of Americans who call themselves Catholic has increased over the years, the percentage number of practicing Catholics has continued to drop. Currently just less than 30% of Catholics attend Mass every Sunday. Back in the 1950s when most of our schools were built and quite full the number of practicing Catholics was just over 80%
- Smaller family sizes. I am only 48 years old, but back when I was a kid it was common for families to have 4 – 5 children. Some families had even more. Today, 1- 2 children is the norm. Contraception (and Abortion too) have made surely devastated the ranks of “future Catholics.” Today, many people think it is crazy or impossible to have more than a two kids. But most never consider how this significantly depletes our future. I look at some of our 1st communion classes at St. Cyprian (my parish). Back in the 1950s there were over 200 children each year. This year we had twelve. Other parishes may have less steep declines but most parishes soimply have less children than 50 years ago.
- Steep declines in vocations – especially to orders of women religious. Catholic schools of 50 years ago where almost entirely staffed by women religious who, frankly, received little pay. This kept tuition very low and made Catholic Education possible for even the very poor. Today however we employ an almost completely lay staff who must be paid more, paid a just wage. This is the most significant cause of escalating tuition rates. An essentially free staff has given way to a staff that must be paid a living and just wage. Even if the Sisters came back in force we could never pay them the pittance they once got. They, like us have medical expenses, retired sisters to care for and so on.
- Parish sizes have decreased. There are some parishes in new suburbs that continue to grow in size, but many older parishes have seen declines in attendance over the years. This too means that the ability for smaller parishes to afford to run schools has also diminished. In the past large parishes could devote larger sums to maintain school buildings and provide tuition assistance and other support to the school. This is less often the case today.
- Aging buildings – The cost of maintaining buildings often built more than 50 years ago continues to climb. Catastrophic costs such as roof replacements and HVAC often mount.
- As tuition has gone up over the years, the number who can afford it has declined. Tuition assistance filled the gaps at first but now much more is needed. As tuition rates climb above $5,000 per child in most schools the numbers of students drops, especially in working class neighborhoods. Available tuition assistance has not kept up with all that is required to help everyone have access to Catholic Education.
- So the bottom line is that, as costs continue to rise and family sizes of practicing Catholics continue to decrease the number of children available and able to afford our schools continues to drop. Higher costs mean higher tuition which drives even more students away. We are in danger of running schools that only the wealthy can afford. This is not really our mission. We have traditionally run excellent schools that were accessible by all. Changes are necessary.
With all this in mind I would like to refer you to the following communique issued by the Archdiocese of Washington:
If Catholic schools are going to survive they must become the shared responsibility of the entire Archdiocese. Until now parishes have shared the financial burden of Catholic Schools unevenly. That is beginning to change with this policy. Parishes that do not currently have or contribute to a Catholic School will asked to contribute more. The Archdiocese is also committed to finding further tuition assistance. The Archdiocese of Washington remains committed to providing schools with strong Catholic Identity, academic excellence. Schools that are accessible and affordable. Please pray and work with you r parish to ensure the future of Catholic Education.
The following video was filmed by the archdiocese of Chicago but it provides some reminiscences of Catholic education from the past along with images from the present.