New York archdiocese experiments to stay viable

The Archdiocese of New York announced this week that it would reshape the authority over its financially troubled Catholic school system, and its action should give advocates for Catholic education everywhere a reason to feel optimistic. By shifting power from local parishes to regional boards and finding new revenue sources, the archdiocese is taking a belated step toward better business practices that may leave its flock looking toward the future instead of staring into the abyss.

Church leaders tell the Wall Street Journal that this is an experiment and are giving three boards wide latitude to make profound changes to schools now under the control of parishes and a central superintendent. While the archdiocese says it will make the system more cost efficient, the new plan likely will lead to more painful decisions before schools find stability. The hard times for Catholic schools haven’t passed—enrollment has shrunk by 14,550 students in five years—but the boards may be better equipped to study their respective regions and grapple with the burden of recommending closure for some schools with an eye toward reviving others.

What will this mean for parishioners and other parents who have either made the choice of a Catholic education or who have considered doing so? A leaner, more efficient system, for one. The Journal reports that the archdiocese will reduce funding for elementary schools, but it is planning an endowment funded by the sale or lease of assets. Those transactions would have an educational benefit if the church sold or leased to high-performing charter schools, particularly those that share the church’s mission in reaching out to the poor and disadvantaged.

But the changes also may mean that parents and parishioners must be willing to make short-term sacrifices and a greater effort to revitalize the institution of the Catholic school. There are those who will suffer from the closure of their school so that others may flourish, but the church also plans to levy a new sliding tax on parishes in order to generate an additional $10 million. Others should step up and contribute more to help schools reduce the financial burden on low-income families while the bishops usher the system toward solvency.

Moreover, policy makers should observe the hard decisions undertaken by the archdiocese and find ways to provide financial assistance. The city will be better off if the church’s experiment succeeds, and the church shouldn’t have to go it alone. It’s hard to imagine a state like New York legislating vouchers or tax credits to parochial schools, but there are other ways to provide financial or in-kind support that wouldn’t run afoul of its Blaine Amendment.

What happens in the Big Apple resonates widely. At least one observer told the Journal that other Catholic communities long ago adopted the changes New York is making, but it takes a system like New York’s to draw attention to bold ideas and practice. Win or lose, other dioceses can learn from this effort.

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