Dr. Timothy McNiff and Archbishop Timothy Dolan have a tough road ahead in the Archdiocese of New York. They are tasked with bringing a network of 185 independently managed, mostly urban, private Catholic schools that have been losing enrollment (= no cash flow) into solvency, sustainability and health.

Though there could hardly be two more capable and ardent supporters of Catholic education than Archbishop Dolan and Dr. McNiff, though they have formulated an ambitious plan to try to establish a foundation upon which to build and sustain the future of Catholic education in New York, this remains a very difficult task, and one that will get much harder before it gets easier.

There are 32 Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of New York assessed to be at risk and that are likely to lose their archdiocesan subsidy.  For many, this will mean inevitable closure in the coming months.  Catholic school closures are always extremely emotional, especially for the parents and children at the schools, the parishioners, alumni and local residents. As difficult as it is to say, this is the right decision.  Archdiocesan leaders need to  use limited resources wisely to continue to serve sustainable and viable Catholic schools.  Unfortunately, too often this means closing some schools that simply are no longer viable.

“These under-enrolled schools require significant financial support from the archdiocese, which cannot be sustained indefinitely,” said Dr. Timothy McNiff, schools superintendent for the archdiocese, which yesterday released its list of “at risk” schools.

“We need to allocate our resources where they can do the most good, and support schools that can sustain themselves over time,” said McNiff, whose 185-school system is in the midst of a massive reconfiguration.”

Here is a helpful summary from the AP.

NEW YORK (AP) — The Archdiocese of New York has released a list of 32 struggling Catholic schools that could be forced to close under a plan that would strip them of financial subsidies.

The list of “at-risk” schools released Tuesday, includes 15 schools in New York City and 17 schools in Westchester and upstate counties. All but one are elementary schools.

The Archdiocese says the schools, which contain 4,561 students, have seen a decline in enrollment of 34 percent over the past five years.

Under the plan, principals and pastors at the “at-risk” schools will be allowed to argue that their schools should continue receiving subsidies. Archbishop Timothy Dolan will then make a final decision in January, 2011.

Ultimately, this is not a solution, even if it is a necessary strategy towards a healthy Catholic school system in New York.  A leader in Catholic education once said, “Downsizing is not a vision.”  Ultimately, we need to push the solutions that will change the dire conditions in which Catholic schools are struggling to survive.  The plan of the Archdiocese of New York (Pathways to Excellence) is guided by a strong vision and strong leaders, and it will be an important case to watch and to learn from in the months and years ahead.  But over the long term, I continue to be affirmed in the conviction that little can replace good public policy that makes Catholic schools accessible to all families through vouchers and tax-credits and that levels the playing field for schools to compete and for  families to chose the best school options for their kids.