By RICK DOCKSAI, Capital News Service
ADELPHI, Md. (September 19, 2007) - Four Catholic bishops decried rising parochial school tuition costs Wednesday, saying they are to blame for dropping enrollment and could make religious education inaccessible for some families.
"The cost of education has to be within reach of families," said Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl. "You can have the best education around, but if it's not within the reach of families, they can't access it."
The "Summit on the Future of Catholic Schools" drew bishops from Washington, Wilmington, Del., and Arlington, Va., at a time when Catholic school enrollment numbers are dropping across the nation, even as the number of Catholics rises.
Mean Catholic school tuition nationally is $2,607 for an elementary school and $5,870 for a high school, according to the National Catholic Education Association. In the Baltimore archdiocese, the average grade school tuition is $5,062 and high school students pay $7,300 a year.
In the Mid-Atlantic Catholic Schools Consortium—a group that includes bishops and superintendents from the dioceses of Arlington, Wilmington, Washington, Baltimore, Richmond, Va., and Wheeling-Charleston, W.Va.—total enrollment has fallen from 120,294 students in the 2004-2005 school year to 117,687 in 2006-2007.
Fewer students means fewer schools: There were 363 Catholic schools in those six dioceses in 2004-05 and 340 in 2006-07.
Wuerl expressed concern that tuition costs are in large part to blame.
"It's ultimately, for us, a matter of school choice. Parents should be allowed to have a real choice in the education of their children," he said.
Drops in schools and students in the mid-Atlantic mirror nationwide numbers. The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University estimates that the Catholic population in the United States grew from an estimated 59.9 million in 2000 to 64 million in 2006. But the number of students in Catholic grade schools fell during the same period, from 2 million to 1.7 million, and enrollment in Catholic secondary schools dropped from 639,954 students to 623,527.
Nationwide, the number of Catholic grade schools fell from 6,923 in 2000 to 6,288 in 2006. The number of high schools went from 1,221 to 1,210.
"We've been facing new challenges over the years," said Mary Schneidau, communications director for the Maryland Catholic Conference.
Schneidau said that schools are also struggling with large fluctuations in enrollment due to migrations out of cities and into suburbs.
"Those changing demographics are having profound effects on the schools" Schneidau said.
Consortium leaders said that they have been working on ways to reduce costs, such as buying utilities and supplies for groups of schools so they can negotiate lower prices.
"The larger the procurement, the lower the price," said Mary Ellen Hrutka, the consortium's executive director. She said schools have banded together in this way to collectively purchase energy, office supplies and textbooks.
Hrutka also said that the consortium works to make sure that Catholic schools get the full amounts that they are entitled to receive under No Child Left Behind. The federal law requires states to fund private-school educations for children in low-performing schools if their parents choose to send them to private schools.
"We're trying to make sure that our schools are getting the full benefit," she said.
Wuerl lauded programs in some dioceses that collect funds to provide tuition assistance for low-income students.
"We need to have a strategy of affordability and accessibility," he said.
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