Catholic leaders like New York’s Cardinal Dolan are wrongly pinning their hopes on vouchers, says education expert Sean Kennedy:
My concern with people like Cardinal Dolan and other people in the church, they’ve hung their hat exclusively on vouchers. The political reality is that vouchers are not coming to blue states anytime soon. And more importantly, vouchers are not going to save them if they don’t save themselves first.
Philadelphia’s Archbishop Chaput has pioneered a more promising model, explains Kennedy:
Let me stop and praise what’s going on in Philadelphia. . . . Chaput came in after huge cuts – 20 percent of all Philadelphia Catholic schools closed in one single year, which is just unprecedented. When the next round of closings came out with four high schools on the chopping block for the 2012-2013 school year, Chaput said no. And in February of last year, 2012, he said, “I’m going to find an alternative.”
So he decided to do something that very few people in the Church or any corporate governance structure would do—he gave up power. And he sought out the head of Cigna Insurance, and they found an organization called Faith in the Future, and they turned over not only all 17 Catholic high schools in the Philadelphia archdiocese, but also . . . get this, most people don’t understand it: the Catholic schools in Philadelphia run four special education schools. The idea that a private charity, with zero state funding, would take it on itself to do special education work, which is probably some of the most frustrating, expensive, and difficult work there is, it’s amazing—and no one praises the Church for that, but at the same time if you want to continue that enterprise you need to be able to sustain your work.
Those 21 schools were turned over to an organization now headed by a fellow named Casey Carter, who wrote the seminal book No Excuses in the late 1990s. Now Casey is running the Faith in the Future foundation, and they have turned a 6 million dollar deficit – archdiocese high school-wide – to a $500,000 deficit in six months.
Kennedy, a strong supporter of school choice, traces the current woes of Catholic schools to the complacency bred by their 150-year near monopoly on alternative education in America. Community loyalties and a lack of options gave them a guaranteed constituency, and surging vocations provided cheap labor. As vocations dry up and options expand, Catholic schools have to seek new ways to hold down costs and deliver results.
Philadelphia offers perhaps the best example of how to stop the seemingly endless reports of Catholic school closings. The Philadelphia Inquirer hailed the system’s progress in a report this month. Rev. James P. Olson, whose Bonner-Prendergast School had been on the chopping block, told the Inquirer, “We could not have even conceived of this a year ago . . . Sometimes when I go home and sit down at night, I think, ‘Did all this really happen?’”