Last week, Philadelphia’s Blue Ribbon
Commission on Catholic Education made the dispiriting but long-expected
announcement that the Archdiocese will
close or consolidate
nearly 50 schools. Keeping more than 150 schools open
with enrollment down a third over the past decade is creating enormous cost
pressure for the city’s parochial schools, and the Commission saw consolidation
as the best hope for saving the nation’s first diocesan school system, a key
part of Philadelphia’s heritage founded by St. John Neumann.

As we described in our 2008 report, Who
Will Save America’s Urban Catholic Schools?
Catholic schools face
major challenges in the form of declining enrollments, fewer vowed religious
sisters and brothers available to teach students, and shifting population and
demographic patterns. These pressures don’t only impact Catholic Americans,
however. Anything that weakens the nation’s parochial schools means bad news for
education generally, for three reasons:

  • Catholic schools are
    relatively cheap.
    According to data from the National Catholic
    Educational Association
    , the average per pupil cost for Catholic elementary
    schools is just under $5,500, and the cost for high schools is less than
    $11,000 per student. The average for K-12 public schools is more than $10K per
    student, making Catholic schools a serious bargain, especially since private
    contributions further reduce the actual tuition charged to parents.
  • Catholic schools are
    Achievement results on NAEP suggest
    performance in parochial schools compares very
    to public schools. (Parents are pretty satisfied,
    too!) This is a bargain for the country, with about two million students
    getting a solid education for very few dollars (and almost no public money)
    every year.
  • Catholic schools
    strengthen civic life.
    Charles Glenn presents a
    vigorous argument in this month’s First
    that sectarian schools are critically important for advancing
    religious liberty in a multicultural society. The notion that respect for differences
    requires the creation of a bland, secularized public square has proven rather
    weak. Giving parents the option to raise their children in a vibrant
    educational community that imparts a positive moral upbringing – with options
    for children of each religious tradition, and none – is an important priority
    after decades of retreat by public schools on questions of ethics and moral

There’s no easy fix to the problems
faced by Philadelphia’s Catholic schools or other troubled religious schools around
the country, as our report on urban Catholic schools acknowledged. Expanding
the reach of vouchers and easing other restrictions on private schools are both
good steps to take, but neither is a panacea. It is clear, however, that the issues these schools face should be taken seriously by education reformers
more generally. The more seats that are available in Catholic schools—and other
religious schools like them—at a competitive cost, the better off parents and
students will be.

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