Stereotypes, Statistics, and Catholic Schools

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During the past 20 years, Catholic schools have deepened their longstanding educational involvement in urban centers, especially the inner city. These schools were once filled with students from poor, ethnic, Catholic families, mostly of Eastern and Western European descent.

Today, those poor have been replaced by the new urban poor--primarily blacks, Hispanics, and Asians. Increasingly, Catholic and non-Catholic minorities are viewing Catholic schools as prized alternatives to public education.

A closer examination of this trend shows that stereotypes linking Catholic-school attendance to any single race, ethnic group, economic status, or intellectual level are not valid.

Indeed, statistics show that Catholic schools serve a vital public purpose by meeting the needs of a variety of religious, ethnic, and economic groups. It is more accurate to speak of a "minority flight" of the new urban poor to these schools than a middle-class "white flight" to them.

In 1969-70--the first year the National Catholic Educational Association collected data on non-Catholic enrollment in its schools--non-Catholic students constituted 2.7 percent of total enrollment. In 1983-84, that figure was 11.6 percent. This reflected an increase of 217,500 students.

During the same period, total minority enrollment increased by 175,300 students, or about 41 percent. Because this was a period of enrollment decline for Catholic schools (a loss of about 36 percent of their total student population), minority students' percentage of total enrollment also increased dramatically, from 9.5 percent in 1969 to 20.2 percent in 1983.

As a percentage of total enrollment, Hispanics and Asians have a larger percentage of students in Catholic schools than in public schools.

Hispanics make up 8.9 percent of total Catholic enrollment, compared with 8 percent in the public schools. Asians account for 2.4 percent of total enrollment, compared with 1.9 percent in public schools. Blacks are more heavily represented in public schools, accounting for more than 16 percent of the public schools' total number of students, compared with 8.6 percent of the Catholic-school total.

A substantial number of the minority students enrolled in Catholic schools are non-Catholic. For example, 63.5 percent of those schools' black students are not Catholic. There are also significant numbers of Asian and American Indian non-Catholics.

This is especially true in urban areas. Catholic schools have always had a strong urban tradition, but because the majority of Catholic-school closings in recent years have occurred in suburban and rural areas, a larger percentage of today's parochial schools are urban than in 1968.

Almost 30 percent of the Catholic schools' minority enrollment is in the 10 largest urban archdioceses and dioceses. Within their city limits, four of them have minority enrollments of over 50 percent.

Listed from largest to smallest general enrollment, Chicago leads the list. There, minority students make up 43.9 percent of the total Catholic-school enrollment.

Next come Philadelphia (22.2 percent minority), New York (boroughs of Manhattan, Bronx, and Staten Island, 55.2 percent), Los Angeles (65.6 percent), Brooklyn (boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, 40.2 percent), Detroit (58 percent), Cleveland (26.5 percent), Newark (74.1 percent), Boston (16.8 percent), and St. Louis (25.7 percent).

Are these students, as some people believe, the financial and intellectual elite of their minority groups? No. Using the 1982 federal poverty level for a family of four (a gross family income of $9,300), the latest data indicate that 82 percent of Catholic high schools have some students from low-income families. Generally, the 1982 income levels of Catholic-school families roughly match the national distribution in the 1982 census data.

Finally, there is the stereotype that Catholic schools accept and retain only the students who are academically most able and least likely to cause disciplinary problems.

In fact, in 1983, close to 20 percent of Catholic high schools admitted students expelled or dropped from public schools for disciplinary reasons. Almost 18 percent took students expelled or dropped for academic reasons. On the average, Catholic high schools annually expel only 1 percent of their students.

Furthermore, a look at admissions practices shows that one-third of Catholic high schools have open admissions policies (meaning they take anyone who applies), one-third accept almost any student, and one third are highly selective. Overall, Catholic high schools reject fewer than 12 percent of the students who apply.

Many of the positions taken by education policymakers on issues affecting Catholic schools suggest a belief in the stereotypes that such evidence refutes. Policymakers need to recognize that Catholic schools are not havens for whites fleeing public education or for an elite avoiding social responsibility. They have less internal racial and economic segregation than do public schools.

Catholic schools embody two basic notions that are part of the American tradition of common, public schools: a natural mixing of diverse groups of students and a closeness to the families and communities they serve.

Because these schools provide social, financial, and cultural benefits to local communities and the nation as a whole, public policy should support them as a natural means of human-capital development. There are four ways in which this could occur:

First, this support should take the form of fostering independence and flexibility in all approaches to federal, state, and local regulation of policies and practices.

Second, policymakers cannot continue to be party to one of the great scandals of the U.S. education system: the lack of any broad-based financial support--through the tax system or more direct means--of those Catholic and other private schools that desire it. Something must be done now to correct this failure.

Third, a more systematic effort must occur at the highest levels of the federal bureaucracy to sponsor and support research and data collection in all segments of the education community, including private education.

Fourth, foundation and business support of school research and reform must not be limited to public education. It should be directed to all educational institutions that serve the many different needs of America's schoolchildren.

Catholic schools are not perfect, but they do serve a larger public composed of differing religious, racial, ethnic, economic, and academic groups. This is a valuable role that should be taken into account in setting public policy.

Vol. 5, Issue 11, Page 22

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