Since 1990, some 300,000 children have been displaced from Catholic schools that closed during this period--twice as many as were impacted by hurricanes Rita and Katrina. Most of these youngsters live in America's inner cities, most are poor, and their beloved schools closed not because of physical destruction or flooding, not because of poor performance, but for lack of funding. If current trends continue, another 300,000 girls and boys are likely to lose their schools over the next two decades.

Before our very eyes, the great institution of the urban Catholic school is disappearing. Does it matter? Does anybody care? Who will do something about it?

Those are the questions addressed by Fordham's latest study, Who Will Save America's Urban Catholic Schools? We are hardly the first to sound this alarm, but our appraisal comes at a critical juncture. With Pope Benedict XVI to arrive in the U.S. next week, the nation's attention will focus on the Catholic Church and its institutions. A few weeks later, President Bush will host a White House conference on inner-city "faith based" schools.

Now is a good time to think clearly about the demise of Catholic parochial schools in urban America. This turns out to have two distinct elements: Catholic education for Catholic children and Catholic education for poor non-Catholics. These groups are different enough to call for distinct responses, some of which are already occurring.

When it comes to educating Catholics, for instance, Wichita is a promising case in point. There the archdiocese promulgated a simple principle: Catholic schooling ought to be free for all parishioners. To make the economics work, the bishop asked all Church members to tithe from their salaries. Today, all Wichita Catholics can send their children to parochial school. Tuition is no barrier.

The Wichita example flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that parochial-school tuitions must inevitably rise every year. Yes, costs are increasing. Without nuns or brothers to staff them, Catholic schools must hire lay teachers and administrators and pay them competitive wages. But these costs don't have to be passed on to parents in the form of tuition; they can be subsidized by the Church as a whole and by all of its members.

Some Catholic educators say they can't compete with "free" charter schools, even when recruiting Catholic families. Here's the solution: make Catholic schools free, too.

Of course, these schools don't serve church members exclusively. America has hundreds of inner-city parochial schools that educate tens of thousands of poor non-Catholics, particularly African Americans. In many cities, however, the Church now says it can no longer afford to foot that growing bill. (The financial hit from the recent sex-abuse scandals was the last straw.)

Is anything to be done? Our new case studies offer some tantalizing insights. One is that philanthropists will respond to the call if they're convinced that Catholic schools are providing an excellent education for low-income children. That's what happened in Memphis, where the inner-city Jubilee Schools received sizable donations from non-Catholics impressed by their educational results. Other Catholic school systems that seek revival--and that are sufficiently transparent about their educational outcomes--may also attract social investors and other benefactors to their cause.

Second, the liveliest signs of energy and strategic thinking in Catholic education today--particularly the kind that benefits non-Catholics--are found not in diocesan school systems but in independent networks, such as the Cristo Rey and Nativity schools. They are acting much like charter management organizations. Supporting them and growing more such networks offers another terrific opportunity for philanthropists and for entrepreneurial education reformers who appreciate the special contribution of Catholic education.

Still, private donors cannot solve this problem alone; the scale is simply too vast. Scott Hamilton, who led the Fordham study and edited the new report, estimates that providing public school educations to students displaced by Catholic school closures has already cost taxpayers about $20 billion. One way or the other, the public will pay to educate these children. Why not use these funds to keep the lights on in excellent parochial schools?

Here's a surprise, though, one that flies in the face of school choice orthodoxy: vouchers are no panacea for Catholic schools. In Milwaukee, home to the nation's largest voucher program, urban parochial school enrollments continue to decline. Nor have federally funded vouchers kept the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., from moving to convert seven of its urban schools into charters in order to tap even more public dollars.

Thus the fundamental question: How important is it for urban Catholic schools that serve non-Catholics to remain religious in nature and to continue operating under the Church's aegis? Nobody can be sure. It may be their encompassing Catholic faith that helps to make them effective with disadvantaged youngsters. We don't really know what erasing the faith-based approach would mean for the schools' future educational success.

Yet it may not be tragic for more of these schools to "go charter," as is happening in D.C., or to make their buildings available to high-quality charter operators. Indeed, for many urban Catholic schools, or at least for the kids they serve, this may be the best available option, the one likeliest to continue making decent education options available to youngsters who need them. We suspect that preserving a quality education for poor kids in a viable school will find greater favor in God's eye than locking the door on an empty building.

So let us propose three recommendations to supplement those that Scott Hamilton offers in the report itself:

  1. The Church should heed Wichita's example and embark on a serious campaign to make Catholic education affordable--even free--for all Catholics.
  2. Philanthropists should generously support networks of Catholic schools that operate independently of diocesan structures--and of Catholic school systems that demonstrate impressive results and still yearn to serve needy kids.
  3. If closures are inescapable, the Church should either convert those schools to charters or make their facilities available at bargain prices to high-quality charter networks.

On all these fronts, what's needed most is leadership and vision, of which there's not enough today in this sphere. Will the Pope's visit change that? Will the White House summit? Else there's big trouble ahead for a valuable institution that has brought hope to so many who otherwise would have little.

"Catholic school enrollment dwindling," by Greg Toppo, USA Today, April 10, 2008

This week's Fordham Factor: Catholic schools

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