Bishops Seek Means To Maintain High Quality

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Keeping Roman Catholic schools faithful to both religion and high academic quality in the next century will require better salaries for teachers and tax dollars in the hands of parents choosing schools.

That prescription comes in a report made to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, which met here last week.

The report chronicles a seven-year effort to meet goals set by the bishops' education committee. The goals include: maintaining the Catholic identity of the schools; increasing the availability of a parochial education, especially to Catholic and poor parents; finding new private money and directing public money to Catholic schools, through vouchers or other means; and bettering the salaries and benefits of parochial school teachers and administrators.

Roman Catholic school leaders said improvements during the past seven years have been uneven.

"We've made tremendous progress in the formation of future leaders" for Catholic elementary and secondary schools, said Monsignor Thomas J. McDade, the bishops' secretary for education.

With growing enrollments and a shrinking workforce of nuns and other religious, Catholic schools have had to rely more and more on lay teachers and principals, who may be less prepared than their predecessors to take up the spiritual dimension of their jobs, said Leonard DeFiore, the president of the National Catholic Educational Association, based in Washington. Principals who are able to minister to spiritual needs are crucial to providing "a uniquely Catholic school environment," he said.

Inner-City Salvation

Mr. DeFiore also pointed to progress--if not success--in making taxpayer money available for Catholic school tuition. An organization created in 1994 under the bishops' auspices helps Catholic school parents lobby at the state and federal levels for support, while a majority of members of Congress favor "some form of vouchers," according to Mr. DeFiore. He said he is optimistic that the next Congress or the next president will produce more school choice for parents.

Concerns raised by the U.S. Catholic Conference, however, helped defeat a voucher bill that the House voted on this month. ("Voucher Bill Fails on Bipartisan Vote in House," Nov. 12, 1997.)

And state-financed voucher plans that include religious schools are under challenge in Ohio and Wisconsin state courts.

The Catholic leaders argue that vouchers would help keep open inner-city parochial schools, which serve a larger proportion of poor, minority, and non-Catholic students than their suburban counterparts. Overall, almost 25 percent of those enrolled in Catholic schools are members of minority groups.

"We still have the tremendous financial burden of keeping these inner-city schools open, and the dioceses don't have the resources to do that indefinitely," Mr. DeFiore said. While well-off suburban parishes can raise tuition or combine forces to meet school needs, inner-city schools often have to rely on the diocese for support, he said.

Both Mr. DeFiore and Monsignor McDay conceded that salaries and benefits for Catholic school staff members are inadequate. "That's one area where we haven't made as much progress as we'd like, and it's a difficult area," because higher salaries often mean higher tuitions, Mr. DeFiore said. He said salaries for most teachers in Catholic K-8 schools are between $20,000 and $30,000 a year, while the average figure for public school teachers exceeds $37,000.

"The whole issue of salaries and benefits is not something we can deal with on a national level," Monsignor McDay said. But, he added, the report intentionally frames the matter as one of justice to spur discussion in each diocese and parish.

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