Perhaps there are a few things we need to think about when it comes to Catholic education. Steve Kellmeyer of Bridegroom Press has made the case in his book Designed to Fail, that the Catholic Church herself should not be doing the educating of children, that it should be something left to adults. That is a bit on extreme end, in my judgment.
However, he does raise a good point, and this is something I thought about when I was Director of Education and Formation at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City -- the Church really needs to be looking at adult education far more than children's education.
People today pride themselves on their education, and indeed, never before in the history of the world, really, have so many people been so well-educated. (Well, at least never before have so many people gone to college and obtained degrees. How well-educated they are is anyone's guess.) In fact, many Catholics today talk about how well-educated they are, something which has never happened before in the history of the Church.
Of course, this is true. But the education of which so many boast is education in the sciences, business, education, law, the arts and many technical fields. Yet this fact has been thrown in the face of bishops and priests as a reason the laity don't need to hear from them about anything regarding the faith and how to live their lives in the faith.
The problem, obviously, is that they have not been educated in the Faith. They have not learned the truths of the Faith because their catechesis was poor to begin with and ended, for the most part, at 8th grade. The rest they've learned from the secular media, which have been taught by the likes of America, Commonweal and National Catholic Reporter.
So we have a serious issue with adult education, hence we have a serious issue with children's education.
What should we do? Take a look at the independent school movement. There are a number of schools cropping up around the country started by parents who are less than thrilled about the quality of Catholic and public education in their area and have banded together to start their own schools. Many of these were started by Catholic homeschoolers. These are parents who take their faith seriously, have been educated in the Faith at places like my alma mater, the University of Dallas, Thomas Aquinas College, Christendom, etc., or just have done the work themselves and learned it well.
It seems to me, then, that this movement might delineate a path for the rest of the Church to follow. Teach the parents, get them excited about the truth of the Faith, and they will want to have quality education for their children and will begin teaching it to them themselves or have other parents do it for them.
As a friend of mine pointed out to me, it seems like this would be the more economical answer. Because the numbers of children are dwindling, it's becoming more expensive per child to educate a child in a traditional Catholic class setting. For instance, an administrator for a Catholic school system can be making as much as a high five-figure or low six-figure income. If a diocese has multiple systems, which many do, that means a lot of money for layers of administrators who are reaching, at best, 1,200 students. Now granted, to cut off their salaries in order to change models is not the greatest thing that can be done, but something will have to give somewhere.
The money that is saved from paying the administrators and other associated school costs is plowed into adult education and serious youth ministry. Now, we're not talking about Wednesday night lectures that no one attends or fluffy youth ministry there. We're talking about serious evangelistic efforts and outreaches, works that will be effective and able to draw people into the Church.
I've posted before about how bishops close parishes in the inner city because Catholics have moved to the suburbs. Well, guys, go make more Catholics!! We're made, not born. And we're made when the Word is preached and hearts are converted. If we seriously think we can save Catholic schools with the current rate of demographic decline, then we have another think coming. However, they can be renewed when we have a renewed vision of what Catholic education should be. They may not look like they did before, but that's OK. Catholic schools as we know them today were the invention of St. John Neumann, former bishop of Philadelphia, in the mid- to late-19th century. They aren't part of the Church's tradition reaching back, so they are a matter of prudence, not a matter of doctrine. They were a good way for the Faith to be taught from St. John Neumann's time up until the mid-1960's.
Then times changed. We will have to change as well and use the best methods for passing along the Faith in the 21st century. If we hold on to something like schools simply because that's what we grew up with, we could end up saving schools for the sake of the schools rather than seeking what the Lord might want us to do to adjust to these new realities and bring His word more effectively to a waiting world.