10 Questions: A New Catholic Framework for Education

October 19, 2007

Ten years ago the Archdiocese of Washington, in an attempt to sustain eight struggling Catholic schools in the District of Columbia, established the Center City Consortium. Six additional schools were added between 2002 and 2005. By last year, it was clear that the archdiocese and the Consortium had exhausted the available funds and could no longer sustain 14 Consortium schools, and the number of schools was reduced to 12.

In early September, a proposal was made for a new Catholic framework for education in the District of Columbia to restructure the Center City Consortium. Under the proposal, the Catholic school presence would continue with a new consortium of four schools (in addition to seven other parish schools in the city). Eight schools would convert to values-based charter schools that would continue to offer quality academics. Parishes also could explore their ability to operate a school as a parish-supported ministry.

In an effort to provide as much information as possible about this process, answers to 10 questions raised during the consultation are below.

1. Why didn’t we know about the financial crisis sooner?
The Center City Consortium was founded 10 years ago in an effort to keep open eight schools that parishes could no longer support; six schools were added between 2002 and 2005. The Consortium Board and the archdiocese have invested more than $60 million in the schools, providing thousands of children with an academically excellent Catholic education. Despite this investment, the deficit has grown substantially, particularly as additional schools were added. The subsidy for the 12 schools that are currently in the Consortium is projected to be $7 million to $8 million this year.

In fall 2006, the archdiocese shared the financial situation with the Consortium pastors, principals and all priests in the archdiocese. Through the pastors, parish finance councils and pastoral councils would have been made aware of the parish finances and challenges facing the schools.

2. Why can’t the archdiocese raise more money for the Consortium schools?
The archdiocese is home to 106 schools in the District of Columbia and five Maryland counties, including 71 archdiocesan elementary schools. Last year, the archdiocese budgeted $2.3 million to assist these archdiocesan elementary schools, including $1.3 million, or 56%, that was earmarked for Consortium schools. The Center City Consortium Board provided another $3.7 million. Yet, a $1.7 million deficit remained. The archdiocese covered this gap last year by using archdiocesan operating funds. In the end, Consortium schools received $3 million from the archdiocese, far more than the amount budgeted to assist all elementary schools in the archdiocese. The archdiocese is committed to continuing to raise funds, but cannot maintain this level of support and ensure families in need throughout the archdiocese have the opportunity to receive assistance.

3. What about Forward in Faith? Doesn’t that money fund the schools?
Education is an important part of the Forward in Faith campaign. One of the major goals is a $30 million endowment fund to support Catholic elementary education. As pledges are fulfilled and funds come in, they are invested and the income is used to provide tuition assistance for families in need throughout the archdiocese. Last year, the Forward in Faith endowment generated $225,000 in elementary school tuition assistance. This year, that figure is expected to be $440,000.

4. Why isn’t there more time?
In March, after it became clear the funds would not be available to continue a 12-school Consortium, the archdiocese made a commitment to fund this year’s deficit, thereby providing time to undertake an in-depth study and to consult with parents. The timeline for the decision is beyond the archdiocese’s control. The process for selecting a charter operator and preparing to convert schools must start in the fall or the option will not be available for parents. It also is important to provide parents with as much time as possible to make educational choices.

5. Why are predominantly Black schools the ones recommended for conversion?
The goal is to sustain as many Catholic schools as possible while providing all students with access to a quality education, even where a Catholic school can no longer be supported. The Center City Consortium serves just over 2,000 students, most of whom are Black and 75% of whom are not Catholic. Despite a $60 million investment over the past 10 years, deficits have continued to rise and overall enrollments to decline, making a 12-school Consortium unsustainable. The new Catholic consortium will have a student body that is predominantly Black and substantially non-Catholic.

6. Is the archdiocese walking away from its legacy?
The educational mission of the archdiocese is to provide an affordable, accessible and excellent Catholic education to as many students as possible, with the resources available. The archdiocese also supports access to academically-excellent schools for all children. The new framework would continue the Catholic presence in the city and provide academically-excellent opportunities where a Catholic school can no longer be sustained. In addition, buildings leased for a charter school would provide resources to support parish ministries, including evangelization and religious education.

7. How will a charter conversion work? Who will be the charter operator?
A conversion means the school community already in place may continue in the same building. This includes the principal, faculty and students from the District (Maryland residents may attend the charter school, but would pay tuition while a charter school is free to District residents).

The archdiocese would choose a qualified operator that would be independent of the archdiocese, but committed to continuing the quality education now offered in the schools. Several experienced operators have contacted the archdiocese, including a group of individuals who have experience working with the Consortium. The archdiocese would choose a charter group from proposals submitted by interested applicants. The operator then would follow the guidelines for a conversion set by the DC Public Charter School Board. That process involves parent and staff participation.

8. What if I want my child to continue in a Catholic school?
The archdiocesan Catholic Schools Office will work closely with parishes and families to ensure students have access to a Catholic school, with special transfer accommodations for those entering 7th and 8th grades. Space is available in Catholic schools in the District and neighboring suburbs.

9. Will the Catholic high schools welcome children from the charter schools?
Yes. The principals of the Catholic high schools have assured the Catholic Schools Office that they are committed to reaching out to the students, who have benefited from a quality academic program.

10. Isn’t the decision already made?
No. This is a consultation process. First was an in-depth study by a 40-person team, including school and parent representatives as well as experts in education, finance and more; consultations with the school and parish communities; and reviews of the proposal by pastors, principals and parish councils. The consultation is to determine if there is sufficient support for a smaller Consortium and for a new charter program or, possibly, a parish school standing on its own. The alternative to these options would be closing schools. The consultation is extremely important and an integral and determining factor in the decision-making process. A decision is anticipated to be made within a couple of weeks.

Susan Gibbs
Director of Communications
[email protected]