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Bishops Adopt Statement Reaffirming Their Support for Catholic Education

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Washington--The nation's Roman Catholic bishops last week gave a strong vote of confidence to Catholic schools, endorsing a statement calling for greater financial support to ensure their future.

The National Conference of Catholic Bishops, at its annual fall meeting here, voted 241 to 10 on Nov. 14 in favor of a statement in support of Catholic elementary and secondary schools that calls for greater parental involvement in the schools through the establishment of new parents' organizations at the diocesan, state, and national levels.

The statement also suggests increased development efforts and the establishment of endowment funds for all Catholic schools.

"Parents and alumni wanted to hear from the bishops whether their commitment was the same as always," said Archbishop Francis B. Schulte of New Orleans, who heads the education committee of the U.S. Catholic Conference.

The statement is considered significant because it comes at a time when Catholic schools face the challenge of continuing declines in enrollment and suggestions from some in the church that the enormous resources devoted to schools might better be spent in other areas, including religious-education programs for those who do not attend Catholic schools. (See Education Week, Sept. 26, 1990.)

"In affirming this statement, the bishops touched the future of our church and country," said Sister Catherine T. McNamee, president of the National Catholic Educational Association, the professional organization for 200,000 Catholic educators.

The bishops' statement is their4first major expression of support for Catholic schools since a 1972 pastoral letter, "To Teach as Jesus Did." In that document, the bishops called on parents, educators, and pastors to work to continue to improve Catholic schools, with particular attention to increasing fiscal responsibility, providing quality education for the disadvantaged, and examining alternative models for schools.

The new statement is much more specific on what roles pastors and school officials, bishops, and the national leadership of the church can play in that process.

The statement notes the educational successes of Catholic schools in producing graduates who outscore public-school students on national assessments in reading, mathematics, and science, and it cites their success in educating minority-group members.

However, the statement reports that the costs of operating the schools have increased more than 500 percent in the last 20 years, more than double the rate of inflation. Since 1966, fewer than 200 new Catholic schools have opened, the statement says. According to the ncea, some 4,000 Catholic schools have closed since 1964; there are now about 9,000 elementary and secondary schools serving 2.6 million students nationwide.

The bishops' statement further notes that in the past 10 years, the percentage of Catholic school-age children who attend Catholic schools has fallen from 33 percent to 27 percent in elementary schools, and from 22 percent to 19 percent in secondary schools.

"Much of this decline is due to shifting demographics and would be reversed if parishes and clusters of parishes opened schools where Catholic families now live," the statement says. These areas include the affluent suburbs of older Northeastern cities as well as Sunbelt states, which traditionally have not had as many Catholic institutions.

The schools statement embraces three broad goals for the 1990's:

To continue to provide "the highest quality education."

To undertake serious efforts to ensure that that "Catholic schools are available for Catholic parents who wish to send their children to them" and that these parents will receive sufficient financial assistance from both the public and private sectors to exercise that right.

To ensure that salaries of Catholic teachers and administrators reflect the bishops' teaching on a just wage contained in a 1986 pastoral letter, "Economic Justice for All."

The statement calls for the establishment of diocesan development offices for education that would be in place by 1995. These offices would be charged with soliciting financial support for schools outside of tuition and parish or diocesan funding.

A national development office will be established by early 1992 to assist local development efforts and to apel15lpeal to corporations that now limit their charitable contributions to public projects, the statement says.

Another major provision of the document is its call for the formation of diocesan, state, and national parents' organizations, especially to lobby for government aid for Catholic schools.

The statement includes a proposal to spend $2 million in seed money for a national office that will help found the national parents' organization and provide assistance to diocesan and state groups.

"We call on all citizens of the United States to join with us in supporting federal and state legislation efforts to provide financial assistance to all parents which will ensure that they can afford to choose the type of schooling they desire for their children," the statement says.

A draft of the statement presented to the bishops for their approval called for a re-emphasis on the concept of "stewardship" in support of Catholic schools. The draft statement invited all Catholics to increase their contributions substantially to the church to the point where they give at least 5 percent of their income to the works of the church, "knowing that education is one of its primary works."

But the final document approved by the bishops retreated from recommending a 5 percent contribution, stating that a future pastoral letter on stewardship would address the matter.

Meanwhile, there are already efforts under way to expand on the bishops' renewed commitment to Catholic schools.

The ncea last week revealed initial plans for a major "congress" on the future of Catholic schools in the 21st century, to be held here in November 1991. The session will examine such issues as governance, Catholic-school identity, and the schools' public purpose. It will bring together church officials, Catholic educators, parents, researchers, and public officials, according to a statement from the association.

"Within the Catholic community, some see schools as a burden, while some see schools as a service-for-a-fee, to be offered for those who want them and can pay for them," the statement reads. "Supporters of Catholic schools find it increasingly difficult to join forces, and are calling for national leadership to draw the Catholic community into a renewed and revitalized commitment to Catholic schools for the 21st century."

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