THIS WEEK'S visit to the United States by Pope Benedict XVI -- his first as pontiff -- is sure to focus attention on some of the thornier problems confronting the church. Topping the list are high-profile issues such as lingering wounds of the sex abuse scandal, disaffected American churchgoers and the departure of Catholic educators from church doctrine. We hope, though, that Pope Benedict finds time to address another crisis -- that of the nation's Catholic schools. Dramatic action is needed if these valuable institutions of learning are to survive.
The plight of urban Catholic schools was highlighted by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in a report timed to coincide with the papal visits to Washington and New York. More than 1,300 Catholic schools have closed since 1990, victims of changing demographics and economics. The result has been some 300,000 students displaced at an estimated cost to taxpayers of more than $20 billion. The more critical issue is that vast numbers of these children -- mainly poor and minority -- have been forced into troubled public schools; their chances for success have been compromised. The foundation's Michael J. Petrilli is right to call it a tragedy. "At the very time when all of us are struggling with how to create good schools in the inner city," he told Education Week, "we have good schools in the inner city that are closing down."
The pope is due to address educators from Catholic schools and universities on Thursday. Days later, the White House will host a conference on inner-city "faith-based schools." The District is the perfect setting for this discourse as its parochial schools present a good picture of the problems as well as glimpses of possible solutions. Because of enormous financial losses, the Washington archdiocese said it could no longer operate eight schools. That the schools stayed open for as long as they did is a credit to the church's commitment to disadvantaged students, many of whom are not Catholic. Indeed, it is because of concern for these children that the church is trying to convert seven of them to public charter schools, rather than shutting them down. The schools, of course, will have to be stripped of their core Catholic identity, but parents in overwhelming numbers prefer conversion over closure because they know the schools do a good job educating their children.
Washington's ongoing experiment is one of the ideas cited by Fordham researchers in their call to action to save Catholic schools. There are others, such as an effort to encourage tithing in Wichita, Kan., that has made the schools free to all Catholics and the growth of independent school networks such as the Chicago-based Cristo Rey high schools. The experiences of these places show the problems are solvable when there is leadership from on high.