Philadelphia Metropolis


Unintended Consequences

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There's an interesting back story to the visit of Gov. Corbett to Philadelphia last week to tout the state's expanded voucher program for non-public schools.

Of course, they are not called vouchers, but scholarships, and the money does not come directly out of the state treasury.  Instead, Pennsylvania businesses get to deduct from their state taxes money donated to funds set up to award these scholarships.

The program is not a new one. The state has had this Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) for years. It amounts to $75 million.  Last year, though, the legislature expanded the program to target schools in poor neighborhoods.  This amounts to $50 million and this program is called Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credits (OSTC).

Enough with the acronyms already.

Corbett went to St. Martin of Tours School in Oxford Circle to tout the scholarship program.  Parents who qualify (under broad income guidelines) can get scholarships to pay the full $4,000 tuition charged by this Catholic grade school.

Corbett was also there to mark creation of an Independent Mission School non-profit -- a new entity that will take over management and fund-raising for 16 Catholic elementary schools within its network. These schools -- most of them in poor neighborhoods -- will be spun off from parish control and operate independently under the aegis of the IMS board.  It also relieves the parishes, many of which are struggling, from having to subsidize the schools.

With aggressive fundraising -- and with programs to steer parents to the EITC and OSTC scholarships -- the future of these schools looks bright. That's a day-versus-night contrast to just a few years ago when most of these schools were holding on to existence by their fingernails.

In fact, the concept of a "mission school" wasn't even part of the archdiocese's lexicon then. These were just parish schools in poor neighborhoods.

For more than a decade, the leadership of the archdiocese dithered over what to do about its Catholic schools -- all of which were facing broad declines in enrollment.

As the seats emptied, and without any firm guidance from headquarters, pastors began admitting non-Catholics -- children whose parents were drawn to the discipline and emphasis on morals in the schools and who could cough up to $3,000 or so in tuition charged non-Catholics.

Some of these schools -- the dePaul School in Germantown is an example -- took the lemons they were handed and turned them into lemonade. They made educating the poor  their mission, taking in students underserved by the local public schools.

For most others, though, it was a matter of pragmatism: a way to keep the schools open even if they did not exclusively serve the Catholic population.

Over time, non-Catholic enrollment increased in the schools. Today, in the 15 mission schools in Philly (there is another one in Lansdowne), enrollment of non-Catholics averages 70 percent. In some schools, it runs in the 90's. (A list of the Philly Mission schools is appended below.)

With a few exceptions, these schools are not at capacity.  Enrollment in the 15 totals about 4,000 children.  With active recruitment of EITC- and OSTC-eligible parents it could probably double.  The same is true with Catholic parish schools that are not in poor neighborhoods.  The generous income guidelines of EITC allow them to get scholarships, too.

In short, Catholic education -- on the ropes a few years ago -- has been given a chance to not only survive, but also to expand its role in the city.

For parents -- Catholic and non-Catholic alike -- this is good news.  It adds another choice to a list that already includes the local public school, charters, private schools and home-schooling through cyber-charters.

A lot of credit should go to Archbishop Charles Chaput, head of the Philadelphia archdiocese.  When he arrived in town in 2011, he found on his desk a study, done by a panel appointed by his successor Anthony Cardinal Rigali, which recommended the closing of dozens of Catholic schools. The dithering was over.  The archdiocese was going to go into a full retreat.

Had Rigali still been in charge there is no doubt the panel's recommendations would have been enacted.

But, Chaput reversed many of the decisions and decided to give many schools a second chance.  The concept of Mission Schools was born. This newly-created independent board is the result.

The pastors and principals who hung on for all of those years of drift at the top did the right thing. By opening up enrollment to non-Catholics they found a new mission for those schools.  In the long Era of Dithering under Cardinals Bevilacqua and Rigali, they improvised -- and survived.

Sometimes the most creative thing you can do is just hang on and hope for a better day.

-- Tom Ferrick

Philadelphia Mission Schools   
Holy Cross, Mount Airy15889% 
Mary Mother of Peace, Southwest Philadelphia29664% 
Our Mother of Sorrows/St. Ignatius of Loyola, West Philadelphia16285% 
St. Francis Cabrini Regional, Overbrook20271% 
St. Gabriel, Gray's Ferry19353% 
St. Helena-Incarnation Regional, Olney33941% 
St. Malachy, North Philadelphia21590% 
St. Martin de Porres, North Philadelphia36592% 
St. Martin of Tours, Oxford Circle (Northeast Philadelphia)49226% 
St. Peter the Apostle, North Philadelphia26480% 
St. Raymond of Penafort, Germantown26480% 
St. Rose of Lima, West Philadelphia20271% 
St. Thomas Aquinas, South Philadelphia23464% 
St. Veronica, North Philadelphia30130% 
The DePaul School, Germantown31791% 
Total           4,00470% 




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