Earlier this month, Roman Catholic schools in Pennsylvania
and New Jersey faced an unfamiliar challenge: striking teachers.
Lay teachers hoisted picket signs for the first time, pushing for
wages matching those of their public-school counterparts.
In Milwaukee and Detroit, parochial schools confronted a more
familiar problem - bracing for news of which schools would close
this fall. The situation contrasted sharply with that of wealthy
suburbs such as Potomac, Md., where parents camped out for two days
to gain their child a spot at the newly renovated and expanding
School of Our Lady of Mercy.
The nation's Catholic schools, long a beacon to the cities'
poor and immigrant children, are going through seismic changes. As
lay teachers around the country push for higher wages and
middle-class families leave the cities, inner-city schools are
struggling to maintain what is often considered a model for good
discipline and a solid back-to-basics education. In the wealthy
suburbs, meanwhile, parochial schools are overloaded with demand
from families willing and able to pay full tuition.
"Professionalization, or unionization, may create more gaps
between the inner-city schools and the suburbs," says Peter
Holland, superintendent of the Belmont, Mass., public schools, and
a former Xavierian brother in Illinois and Missouri parochial
schools. "The Catholic school may end up more like a private school
- reserved for only the wealthy who can afford it."
A driving factor may be the shift in teaching staff. A
generation ago, nuns and priests taught the classes and accepted
low wages as part of their calling. Today, lay teachers make up 95
percent of parochial school staff, and many of them have families
to support or retirement to consider.
Even teachers with experience average $8,000 less in salary
than their beginning counterparts in the public schools. Many
teachers are also reluctant to spend time in religious services if
the school won't pay for it.
In St. Louis and many East Coast cities, lay teachers are
organizing into unions and demanding contracts.
In Philadelphia and New Jersey, lay teachers walked out of
their jobs for a week in the Philadelphia area after the
archdiocese demanded the teachers attend the religious services and
be willing to live up to a strict moral code. In New Jersey, the
archdiocese brought in priests and nuns as replacement workers
after the union made similar demands. In the end, both sides
settled for less.
"The downside of keeping tuition low is the salaries are
low," says Leonard DeFiori, president of the National Catholic
Education Association in Washington. "As long as the tuitions are
modest, the salaries have to stay modest."
In Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, Baltimore, and other
cities, archdioceses have merged and shut down scores of schools in
the past few years. As recently as 1980, schools were a cash cow
for city parishes. Most schools took in from tuition more than
twice the amount needed for operations, according to one study. But
by 1990, the schools cost more than entire parish revenue.
Many of the cities' rock-solid Catholic neighborhoods have
gone through sweeping changes. Middle-class families moved out to
the suburbs or out of state, leaving behind the very poor. Today,
many inner-city Catholic schools have student bodies who aren't
In Chicago, the Catholic school population has halved in the
last 20 years, to 136,000 students. To cope, the archdiocese has
closed 146 schools. In Baltimore, the archdiocese closed the
73-year-old Holy Rosary School this year. The school had only 80
students in a school built for 600.
Few of the students left in the cities are able to pay the