Catholic schools matter

During the past year, the Archdiocese of Baltimore has taken much-needed steps to ensure the long-term viability and competitiveness of Catholic schools. Though some were painful, these measures have positioned our schools for a rebirth, especially in our more impoverished communities, and reminded people that their many contributions are worth our investment.

From time to time throughout this process, some have asked the question: Are Catholic schools worth it? Do they offer enough of a benefit to justify the sacrifices, sweat and anguish required to preserve these treasures for our communities?

Some of these benefits were highlighted in a presentation given this month to a group of business and community leaders by local economist Anirban Basu. At our request, Mr. Basu conducted an independent study of our local Catholic school system to determine the schools' value to both the students they serve and the wider community. His findings were affirming and, for some, eye-opening.

The report lauded our schools for their success in providing excellence in academics and character formation, noting that, on average, Catholic school students:

•attain higher test scores;

•are more likely to graduate;

•are more likely to attend and graduate from college; and

•as graduates, are more likely to emerge as societal leaders.

Mr. Basu's findings also showed that our schools are of disproportionate benefit to older and lower-income communities, producing a graduation rate 17 percentage points higher than their public school counterparts for minority students living in the city. From our own focus groups and parent surveys, we know that the parents who live in our poorest communities, and yet sacrifice mightily to send their children to a Catholic school, see our schools as a way out of the poverty that has gripped their families for too long.

Byron Pitts, now of CBS News and "60 Minutes" and a member of our new Archdiocesan Catholic School Board, attested to his own mother's sacrifices to send him to Catholic schools as a child growing up in East Baltimore. "My mother was a single parent, a social worker making a modest living. ... She had to borrow from friends and family, and there were times when other bills went unpaid so she could pay for my tuition. But I thank God that my mother had the courage of her convictions and knew the value of a Catholic education. … I thank God she made the choice she did."

We recognize the struggles our schools' parents make and have rededicated our own commitment to Catholic education. Beginning in 2012, we will require every Catholic parish in the archdiocese, whether attached to a school or not, to financially support Catholic schools. (The archdiocese is increasing its own investment in the schools through tuition assistance, new programs and transportation.)

This will help in creating a sustainable financial model, but we cannot and should not do it alone. In addition to turning out better citizens, our schools provide tangible benefits to the wider community, something Mr. Basu's report confirmed. Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Baltimore save the state more than $380 million in per-pupil expenses each year. This is why we've urged members of the General Assembly to share the wisdom held by our neighboring states by reintroducing legislation offering tax credits to businesses that contribute to scholarship programs that support public and nonpublic schools (especially those that benefit lower- or middle-income families) and thereby help offset the financial burden that has become too heavy for many parents to shoulder alone.

Many generous individuals and organizations — Catholics and non-Catholics, foundations and corporations — have invested millions through the years in tuition assistance and other financial aid to schools. We are deeply grateful for their belief in our schools, our excellent teachers and our students, and we will continue to work every day to reward their faith.

A widely held axiom in the Catholic community, pervasive in all that we do — from parish outreach to schools to our charitable work — perhaps best describes our commitment to education in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. It says that we do what we do "not because the people we serve are Catholic, but because we are." As we prepare to celebrate National Catholic Schools Week in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, I thank the countless people who sacrifice on behalf of Catholic schools and the children they serve, and I encourage others to join me in giving thanks for their service.

Edwin F. O'Brien is archbishop of Baltimore. His e-mail is communications@archbalt.org. For more information about Catholic schools and to view the Basu report, visit http://www.archbalt.org/aplacetogrow.

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