This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 2, 2012 - Archbishop Robert J. Carlson wants Catholic education to strengthen its Catholic identity, increase enrollment, be able to use state tax credits for scholarships to non-public schools and raise up to $10 million a year from parishes for financial aid.
The priorities he outlined at John F. Kennedy High School Thursday, during Catholic Schools Week, are the product of a two-year program to improve education in the St. Louis archdiocese by 2018, the 200th birthday of its school system.
Discussing what he called the schools' "challenges of survival," Carlson said Catholic education must help strengthen families' faith, maintain strict academic standards and help families struggling in tough economic times to be able to afford religious education.
Though some schools inevitably will close in the coming years, he said he hopes that many empty seats in archdiocesan schools will be filled by students who will be able to receive financial aid, either from tax-credit scholarships now being discussed in Jefferson City or through increased money assessed from parishes in the 11-county archdiocese.
If his plan is successful, Carlson said in six years the schools will have a stronger Catholic identity, will provide more opportunities for children in need and grow stronger through partnerships and cooperative arrangements.
Addressing the situation in the city where the schools are unaccredited and a court case will determine circumstances under which they may transfer to accredited suburban schools, Carlson said the archdiocesan schools wants to build bridges to all different kinds of education.
"We want to make sure people have options," he said.
George Henry, superintendent of Catholic education for the archdiocese, told lawmakers last year that the archdiocese has 8,000 empty seats in St. Louis and St. Louis County.
Before Carlson's presentation, he said there was surprisingly little opposition last week at a hearing on a bill to establish a scholarship program using tax credits to provide financial aid for students in unaccredited districts to attend non-public schools.
He compared the situation to past years, when such proposals have drawn determined opposition.
Asked whether Catholic schools would be willing to accept any additional degree of public oversight if students received scholarship aid from tax credits, Carlson said that such scholarships would not mean the religious schools would get public money, since the aid would go directly to students, so there would be no need to accept additional supervision from the state.
He said the scholarship program has a more realistic chance for passage in Jefferson City than other proposals that would repeal the so-called Blaine Amendment to the Missouri Constitution, which bars the use of public funds for religious schools.
Building on a process that he said involved the participation of more than 3,000 people over the past two years -- a process that he detailed in an assembly last March -- Carlson outlined these 10 priorities for the archdiocesan schools.
- Strengthen Catholic identity. "We must all work together to make sure our schools are alive in Christ," he said, adding: "Catholic identity is not something we can afford to take for granted."
- Establish standards of academic excellence. He said families that make the sacrifices needed to send their children to Catholic schools deserve to know that they are receiving a good education.
- Provide opportunities for adult education and classes for parents. He said such education is crucial to make sure a strong faith is handed down to the next generation.
- Continue and expand evangelization. Carlson said the archdiocese cannot afford to let families drift away, so schools should "work with parents from the day they walk into the church to have their child baptized. ... When I look at a Catholic school, I do not see expense. I see evangelization."
- Establish creative and active marketing and enrollment plans. "Schools that are full have a much better chance of being vibrant and operating in the black," the archbishop said.
- Reach out to students in poor areas and expand efforts in special education and faith formation. Carlson said the archdiocese must make a strong commitment to help those who are in financial difficulty and those who are marginalized reach their full potential.
- Facilitate the planning needed to encourage collaboration among parishes and schools. "Six years from now," he said, "we can't expect to have the same number of schools in the same locations," so cooperative efforts have to make the best use of facilities.
- Improve education and training at the parish and school levels. He said leaders must become more skilled in areas such as planning, governance, organizational management and finances.
- Increase funding for tuition assistance, with immediate assessments and a long-term endowment campaign. Parishes will contribute 2 percent of all external revenue each year, after a 1 percent contribution the first year, for scholarship assistance, to raise eventually between $5 million and $10 million annually. In addition, a capital campaign over the next three years, to be detailed in the coming months, is expected to generate $5 million more in endowment revenue.
- Work with the Missouri Catholic Conference to gain government assistance where appropriate. Carlson said that "the time has come, after many years of frustration," to win passage of such public help.
Not All Schools Will Remain Open
As part of the long-term plan to strengthen archdiocesan education, Carlson said that "some schools will have to close. I hope these are few and far between."
He had no specifics. In his introduction of the archbishop, Henry noted that in Philadelphia, officials recently announced the closing of dozens of high schools and elementary schools. Carlson said he hoped the St. Louis Archdiocese's planning efforts can help minimize such actions here.
That process, Henry noted, included nine listening sessions, an online survey and the help of professional educators and fund-raising professionals who made recommendations to the archbishop.
He and Carlson called the priorities a blueprint that spells out the future of Catholic education here for many years to come.
What he spelled out, the archbishop added, was just the beginning of a long road, with many hard choices and sacrifices ahead.
"But we have begun our work," he said, "and with God's blessing, we will see it through to completion."