WICHITA, KAN. -- Because Carl and Jane French give 8 percent of their income to Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Wichita, they are guaranteed tuition-free education for their three children at Roman Catholic schools.

"It's not a financial decision, they keep telling us from the pulpit," said Jane French. "It's a faith decision."

So far, faith and finances have worked together nicely for the Frenches and many other parents of Catholic students in Wichita and a handful of other dioceses nationwide that are trying to keep up with the escalating costs of a private education.

The Frenches and other Catholics in the diocese credit the two-year-old, tuition-free program for helping them manage those costs while ensuring a Catholic education for their children. "If you do fall on hard times in your life, if Carl would be laid off, we wouldn't have to worry that our children will be kicked out of school," said Jane French. "After all, 8 percent of nothing is nothing."

Nationwide, Catholic schools are trying to cope with a 20-year drop in numbers of students and rising educational costs. The percentage-giving alternative used in Wichita is a new strategy, said a Catholic education official in Washington.

Diocesan officials in Wichita say they believe their program for the 31 elementary and four secondary schools provides an equitable and church-wide supported education for all Catholic children.

In addition to spreading out the cost of education among the Wichita diocese's 107,000 members, there's an added benefit not available when parishioners pay directly for educational costs: Money given to a church is tax-deductible; parochial school tuition is not.

A decline in enrollment in Catholic schools, fewer nuns teaching for little or no salary and an increase of salaries and other benefits for lay teachers have increased costs, and thus increased tuition.

"The result, said Dan Elsener, superintendent of schools for the Wichita diocese, was driving " middle and lower class and people economically deprived" out of the schools.

At St. Mary's Catholic School in Derby, Kan., for example, the cost per student has risen from $900 to $1,200 in three years.

"People whose income was fairly low didn't have $1,100 or $1,200 to pay," said Sister Margaret Nugent, principal of the school. Parents who were unable to pay often worked part time at the school or church to offset the costs, she said.

Now, with a tuition-free program, Nugent said the program involves the entire parish in paying for its school.

Enrollment in Catholic elementary and secondary schools nationwide peaked in 1964 with 5.6 million students. Last year, the total dropped to 2.7 million, the lowest since World War II.

The decline in enrollments nationwide and the closing of many Catholic schools have prompted Catholic educators to examine the future of Catholic education in America. A national symposium on Catholic education will be held next spring in Ohio.

"The trends and the impact of those trends and other forces on education, particularly Catholic education, will be looked at," said Richard Duffy of the U.S. Catholic Conference's Department of Education in Washington. "An agenda for Catholic education for the 1990s and into 2000 will be considered."

Though many Catholics say they are optimistic about the tuition-free program for diocesan schools, some parents admit the program demands ongoing support long after their children have graduated.

And that support, some admit, may change.

"I think it's great; I really do," Jane French said of the program. "Once we get our children out of school, I wonder if I'll feel the same."