The Archdiocese of Philadelphia said yesterday that it is turning twenty-one of its Catholic schools over to independent management, a move the Philadelphia Inquirer justifiably called “radical.” Philadelphia was home to the nation’s first diocesan Catholic school system. Now it has the first Catholic school system run by a foundation of lay people.

What’s happening in Philadelphia is unprecedented.

The Faith in the Future Foundation will assume control over seventeen diocesan secondary schools and four special education schools starting this fall (the archdiocese will maintain control over elementary schools). The group formed earlier this year to promote Catholic education in the city. Now it has pledged to bring a “more metrics-driven management structure” to a school system hemorrhaging money and enrollment, and it is bringing marketing prowess to a church losing good will, too.

The 1.5 million members of the archdiocese have grown agitated since church leaders closed twenty-seven schools this year and spent $11 million to respond to a grand jury report on clergy sex abuse. The church may still own the buildings and assets it’s turning over to the foundation, but it will no longer be calling the academic and financial shots at the schools. That responsibility will belong to a foundation that hopes to raise $100 million in the next five years and reverse a 35 percent decline in enrollment since 2001.

Other systems like those in New York and Boston have experimented with giving more autonomy to local boards entrusted with the governance of two or more Catholic schools. But those boards almost always answer to the diocese in the end. In other cases, power has devolved from religious orders operating schools—like the Society of Jesuits—not a diocese. What’s happening in Philadelphia is unprecedented.

Edward Hanway, the former Cigna Corp. chief executive who leads the foundation, said the group is making plans to develop new education initiatives, like partnerships with universities and enhanced digital learning. But its real value in the short term might be its ability to raise private dollars and market to prospective families. Archbishop Charles J. Chaput may have focused more on the needs of Catholic education in Philadelphia than his predecessors did—he declared one day in May “Voucher Sunday” to rally the faithful and Governor Tom Corbett—but even he conceded to reporters yesterday that the foundation can “provide a level of creativity we wouldn’t be able to achieve on our own, and a broader level of community participation.”

But the foundation can serve a larger purpose in the years to come—by developing an effective Catholic school model that can be replicated in other cities. God willing.

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