This story caught my eye because my wife is originally from Toledo, Ohio and my mother was born there too.  The trials facing Catholic schools there – Toledo’s area Catholic schools have lost roughly 7,000 students over the last 10 years – therefore hit especially close to home.

It is good that the Bishop Blair has a clear and direct multi-media campaign to clearly communicate the situation and begin to address it.  I especially appreciated these words: “People can only face challenges and work on solutions when they know early on what the challenge or problem is.”

You can watch this two part video at the bottom of the page, worth a view as Toledo’s challenges are typical of northeastern and midwestern dioceses.

Archbishop Carlson of St. Louis also had a compelling message that is worth highlighting.

He articulated three priorities, which are right on the money (here in abbreviated form):

“1. The school must have a vibrant Catholic identity. It must be clearly and unquestionably a Catholic school, and everything about the school’s academic and formation programs must be grounded in the teaching and practice of the Catholic Church.

2. The school must be growing. Proactive recruitment and enrollment management strategies are an essential sign of life for Catholic schools. All Catholic schools in our archdiocese should either have a commitment to increase their enrollments or, if a school is filled to capacity, to refer families to nearby Catholic schools and assist them in enrolling there. We cannot be content with the status quo or, worse, with declining enrollments in our schools. Promoting growth is not optional — no matter how difficult the challenges. Every school should have a student recruitment plan and every member of the school community should have a part to play in growing the school’s enrollment.

3. The school must be financially healthy and, at the same time, provide assistance to those who otherwise could not afford to attend a Catholic school. This is perhaps our greatest challenge. The cost of a Catholic school education threatens the continued existence of too many schools in our archdiocese. That’s precisely why this must be a top priority for all of us.”

This last priority is the million dollar question, if you will. The bishops should act aggressively to move forward on two strategic approaches:

1. Build a major, separately incorporated, scholarship fund and fund-raising organization like the Big Shoulders Fund in Chicago.  Catholic school graduates are very successful, but schools don’t have the capacity or knowledge to do this kind of major fund-raising on their own.  Private scholarships need to be a major part of the equation, and there is a need to effectively facilitate the involvement of the business community.  Far too many dioceses, including the two discussed here, do not have an organization of this kind.

2. Get serious and aggressive about school choice legislation advocacy.  Catholics have traditionally been timid on this front, and we need to become far more active in this political issue.  Over the long run, private philanthropy will only take us so far.  For the sake of justice for low-income children to have equal access to quality schools, and for the sake of preserving the wonderful gift of Catholic schools for the Church and for our civic communities, we ALL need to become advocates and start flexing some Catholic muscle on this issue.