A new report on Catholic education in the Washington archdiocese shows significant gains, particularly in funding, in recent years, though local Catholic schools still face challenges.

"In a particular way, significant strides have been made in recent years financially to support Catholic schools; but there is still much work to be done on the part of all of us," stated Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Archbishop of Washington, in the report.

"Catholic education – and our support of it – is not merely an option. It is an essential element of the New Evangelization," he emphasized.

The report follows on a five-year initiative for improving Catholic education in the archdiocese which began in 2008. While some significant challenges remain at the end of the initiative, the report says, the Archdiocese will continue to find ways of improving Catholic education.

The initiative to improve Catholic education in the archdiocese began following meetings with catechists and educators during 2006 and 2007, and review of data regarding Catholic education.

Subsequently, Cardinal Wuerl released a  2008 pastoral letter, "Catholic Education: Looking to the Future with Confidence," outlining goals formulated following the meetings and reviews.

These goals included an updated religious curriculum; improved formation for catechists; discussion with homeschoolers; stronger Catholic identity; academic excellence; and better affordability and accessibility.

The archdiocesan report, released this month, stated that it has made "significant progress" towards reaching those goals since 2008.

To help meet these goals, in 2009 the Washington archdiocese set in place new policies for school, curriculum and operations planning. In addition, new plans were created for comprehensive accreditation, raising academic standards, and steps were made towards increasing tuition assistance for families in need of aid.

Since the plan was put in place, 13 elementary schools in the archdiocese have received the Blue Ribbon Award, an accolade from the Department of Education given to private schools recognized for excellence in education.

Furthermore, the archdiocese increased its financial aid for students in need from $800,000 for the 2007-2008 academic year to $5.5 million in aid for the 2013-2014 year.

The report also noted improvements in catechesis programs, and the use of new online adult formation programs by more than 2,000 people.

The report noted, however, that the Archdiocese of Washington still has several challenges facing Catholic education. Schools in the region are facing declining enrollment, and the parishes that support them often have their own financial problems.

Additionally, even with the improvements the archdiocese has made in providing financial aid, it is not enough to meet the needs of those enrolled in its Catholic schools – especially the needs of poor students and access for middle-income families.

On top of that, the funding for the archdiocese's Opportunity Scholarship Program will expire in 2016,  leaving uncertain the future for the more than 800 students who use these scholarships.

The Archdiocese of Washington maintains it will continue to increase tuition assistance for Catholic schools and students, while investigating ways to make Catholic education more affordable overall.

The report also promoted the pursuit of  government partnerships, publicly funded scholarship programs, tax credits, and vouchers to help support students and their families who are in need of financial assistance.

The report also outlined the Archdiocese of Washington's plan to hold retreats for new catechists, and augmented support for adult faith formation.

Cardinal Wuerl stated in the report that a "robust system of Catholic education programs is something from which we all benefit."  

Catholic education benefits not only its recipients "but the whole Church" and "the wider community" as well, he said, "because the richness of Catholic teaching engages the secular culture in such a way that the light of the wisdom of God is brought to bear on the issues of the day."

"Catholic education is a blessing – a blessing so sorely needed by our society today."