Chicago Archdiocese Proposes Student GI Bill

Published March 1, 1999

More school closings ahead. That was the bleak message delivered to parents when Catholic school officials from the Archdiocese of Chicago issued the system’s annual schools report on January 28. But while warning of shutting down as many as eight grade schools this fall, Archdiocese officials also called on Illinois state legislators to find a way to make private schooling more affordable, either through school vouchers, income tax credits, or–as Chicago’s Francis Cardinal George had proposed a month earlier–a Student GI Bill.

Enrollment in the Roman Catholic school system in Illinois dropped about 2 percent last year, and has fallen by 9 percent since 1993 despite an average grade school tuition of $1,700, less than one-third of the state’s average public school cost of $6,300 per pupil. That modest tuition level raises only 80 percent of total Catholic elementary school costs of approximately $2,100 per pupil, with the deficit covered for the past two years by annual $52 million infusions from the Archdiocese. With 131,000 students in 275 elementary and 47 high schools, the system is the nation’s eleventh-largest.

“We don’t want to close our schools, especially in the inner city, where we feel the mission of the schools is significant to the lives of the people,” said Doug Delany, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois.

“Our goal is to remain available in all areas of the Archdiocese,” agreed Superintendent Elaine Schuster, but, she added, “we need more direct assistance in order to keep the schools for the most economically needy in place.”

The Archdiocese’s call for “more direct assistance” had been laid out a month earlier in a report of the Special Task Force on Catholic Schools in the Chicago Archdiocese. To meet the financial needs of keeping Catholic education available to all children in the Archdiocese, the report offered several approaches that go beyond the present formula of tuition increases, fundraising, and subsidies from the parishes and the Archdiocese. In particular, the report recommends that parents who choose to send their children to nongovernment schools should have access to some form of reimbursement or public financial aid.

Commenting on the report, Archbishop of Chicago Francis Cardinal George said he could not in good conscience indefinitely support a system that paid its teachers only half of what their peers earned in government schools. He also pointed out that it would cost the state an additional $1 billion a year to absorb students currently served by the Archdiocese’s schools.

“It’s primarily a political question, not a constitutional question,” he explained when asked about the separation of church and state. “The constitutional question is settled,” he added, pointing out that the Archdiocese’s proposal was like the GI Bill. So long as the money goes to the parent and not to the institution, the program would not create a constitutional problem.

The political challenge is how to develop a “GI Bill for Students” to give parents access to their tax dollars, the Cardinal said. Without such access, other changes would be required to avert piecemeal collapse of the system, such as school consolidation, increased tuition, and launching a $100 million endowment fund.

While noting that it was good for everyone to have competition and a choice of alternative schools, George warned that “it is unrealistic to maintain the system we have now” without additional funding. He was particularly concerned about the impact on the poor of a collapse of the system.

Cardinal George already has reviewed his reimbursement or tax credit proposal with Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and the leaders of the Illinois General Assembly. The chairman of the Senate Education Committee agrees that “more dramatic intervention” may be required to avert the failure of the Chicago Catholic school system.

“I think there is a legitimate public policy interest in ensuring the viability of the Chicago Catholic school system,” State Senator Dan Cronin told the Chicago Tribune.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.