PHILADELPHIA -

The archbishop of Philadelphia has appointed a 17-member commission to examine the future of local Roman Catholic schools.

Cardinal Justin Rigali said the group will form a strategic vision for Catholic education in the face of rising costs and declining enrollment.

The five-county archdiocese has 188 Catholic schools serving about 68,000 students.

Since 2008, the church has closed or merged at least 20 schools while opening two high schools, including Pope John Paul II High School in Royersford, Montgomery County.

"Archdiocesan schools face challenges -- changing demographics, lower enrollments in some schools and the continued struggle to keep Catholic education affordable for the many families who wish to make this investment for their children's futures," said Rigali. "We are not alone in this struggle. In fact; it is very much a national trend."

In the Allentown Diocese, which includes Berks, Carbon, Lehigh, Northampton, and Schuylkill counties, enrollment in the schools is down 29 percent since 2001.

The diocese recently merged three schools into one in Allentown and closed others throughout the region, citing decreasing enrollment and rising costs.

It also recently decided against building a new high school in Berks County. A study is now being done to find the best ways to offer Catholic secondary education in Berks. The diocese did not say whether a merger of Reading Central Catholic and Holy Name high schools would be considered.

The commission appointed by Cardinal Rigali is composed of laity and church officials.

Chairman Jack Quindlen said the group will look at everything from buildings and logistics to finances.

"Each of these members is a dynamic and experienced leader and I am very much looking forward to working with them to strengthen the future of Catholic education in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia," said Quindlen.

The commission will begin work in January. It hopes to submit its recommendations to the cardinal in the fall.