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Published in Print: January 13, 1999, as Chicago Catholics To Reform Their Schools' Funding

Chicago Catholics To Reform Their Schools' Funding

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Chicago's Roman Catholic Archdiocese plans to map out a series of radical reforms to ensure the future viability of its schools, including a push for state financial support for parents who choose a private education for their children.

A team to be appointed this month will examine a wide range of strategies aimed at raising teacher salaries, keeping tuition down at inner-city schools, and responding to the population shifts of recent years. The team will address what Cardinal Francis George, the archbishop of Chicago, called "the practical impossibility of maintaining the present system with only the present formula for support."

The planning follows the most extensive self-examination ever of the 320 schools that make up the largest parochial school system--and the 11th largest of all school systems--in the country. Detailing the impact of demographic, market, and economic forces, the report shows a 131,000-student system "remarkable in its achievements, but encountering serious challenges," the cardinal said.

That description, some Catholic school experts say, sums up the situation of many other large parochial systems today. Even many of those enjoying enrollment gains are searching for sources of support beyond tuition.

"I think what [the cardinal] is raising is that we want to be really careful so we don't raise tuitions to the point where we exclude parents," said Sister Lourdes Sheehan, who directs the department of Chief Administrators of Catholic Education at the National Catholic Educational Association in Washington. "We don't want to become exclusive schools for the financially elite."

No Crisis Yet

The late Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin, Cardinal George's predecessor as archbishop, assembled a task force of more than 60 church and civic leaders, school officials, and business people to begin the comprehensive study just before his death in 1996.

The archdiocese oversees schools in Illinois' Cook and Lake counties, and stretches from Chicago's inner city to the Wisconsin border. Overall enrollment in its elementary schools fell from 135,027 in 1979 to 100,566 in 1997. Though the archdiocese operates some high schools, many of the Catholic high schools in the area are run independently or by a religious order.

The study also shows some schools--many of them in the suburbs--have students on waiting lists, while others face shrinking student populations. Most Catholic families now live outside the city, but 104 of the system's 275 elementary schools remain in economically depressed areas of Chicago.

Operating schools, meanwhile, has become more expensive as the religious personnel who decades ago made up the bulk of their staffs--and who worked for minimal compensation--have been replaced by salaried lay people. Within the archdiocese, 93 percent of teachers and principals are now lay.

To help offset the expenses, the average annual tuition at elementary schools in the archdiocese has risen to $1,693; yet, the actual cost of providing that education is $2,136. At its high schools, average tuition is $4,075, while the cost is $4,893. Even that, however, is less than the $7,100 spent per pupil in the city's public schools.

The system also has fallen far behind the area's public schools in the salaries it pays--a gap Cardinal George called "the single most troubling item in the report." While the starting salary for Catholic elementary teachers in Chicago is about $19,950, their counterparts in the city's public schools earn about $31,400.

"It's not a crisis at this point," the Rev. John Pollard, the director of education for the archdiocese, said of the report's conclusions. "But [the cardinal] is intervening to prevent the present situation from becoming a crisis."

Seeking Equilibrium

With the Rev. Pollard as its chairman, the implementation team will consider new marketing strategies and the addition of new sources of funding to the system's traditional mix of tuition, church support, and fund raising.

Market research commissioned by the task force, for example, shows parents in parts of the archdiocese avoiding Catholic schools because they believe the tuitions to be much higher than they actually are.

But some Catholic school parents also said they'd likely stay in the system even if fees were raised. So the archdiocese will consider beefing up advertising and raising tuitions at the schools where families can afford it.

The archdiocese also will look at launching a $100 million capital campaign, an unprecedented fund-raising effort for the system's schools, and will look at corporate sponsorship of individual schools and tax-exempt bonds as a way to pay for construction, a growing trend among private schools.
("Private Schools Learn Benefits of Bond Issues," May 20, 1998.)

"These schools are very much part of the educational history and heritage of this country," said Elaine M. Schuster, the system's superintendent.

"Many of us are facing the dilemma of wanting to stay and serve a broader base of the population, but also faced with the question of how can we do that without getting more support from the outside."

Ultimately, some school closings may be inevitable, she said.

'A Public Service'

Cardinal George made it clear that any funding plan should look beyond private sources. By educating students who otherwise would mainly attend public schools, the archdiocese claims to be saving taxpayers $856 million a year.

"This is a public service," the cardinal argued. "But if this service is to continue, citizens should be able to access some of their own tax money to support their choice to educate their children in a nongovernment school."

Archdiocesan officials expect to make another concerted push for allowing parents to deduct the cost of a private school education from their state income taxes. Illinois lawmakers had approved a tuition tax credit, but then-Gov. Jim Edgar, a Republican, vetoed it last year. Republican George Ryan, who succeeds Mr. Edgar this week, supports the idea.

Any legislation, however, would face stiff opposition from the powerful Illinois Education Association. "Our position is that the parochial school system is a self-managed, self-funded system," said George King, a spokesman for the National Education Association affiliate."We don't believe state dollars should be provided to shore up private or parochial schools."

Vol. 18, Issue 18, Pages 1,14

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