Benefits Outweigh Costs for Urban Catholic-School Students

By Alex Heard — June 23, 1982 8 min read

In 1800, St. Peter School in lower Manhattan opened its doors and became the nation’s first Roman Catholic inner-city school. In the decades that followed, scores of schools like St. Peter were founded as the Catholic Church sought to serve Catholic immigrants who flocked to America’s cities from Europe.

But during the 1940’s, the relatively affluent descendents of these immigrants, like many other upwardly mobile Americans, began to move from the cities to the suburbs. Simultaneously, large numbers of poor blacks, Mexican-Americans, and Puer-to Ricans moved in and increasingly sent their children to Catholic schools.

Although these demographic shifts have posed challenges to educators, Catholic inner-city schools are carrying on the tradition of St. Peter School. And two soon-to-be-published studies that examine the changes that have taken place in these schools suggest not only that they are doing so successfully, but that they are more effective than their public-school counterparts.

Inner-City Schools Studied

One of the analyses, “A Study of Inner-City Private Schools,” was conducted for the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights in Milwaukee by James G. Cibulka, professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; the Rev. Timothy J. O’Brien, director of the project and assistant professor of political science at Marquette University; and Donald Zewe, associate professor of sociology at LeMoyne College.

The other, Minority Students and Catholic High Schools, by the Rev. Andrew M. Greeley, is based largely on data from “High School and Beyond,” the study of 1980 high-school sophomores and seniors in the U.S. conducted by the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago.

The researchers in the study of inner-city schools argue that many of the schools will not survive without government support in the form of tuition tax credits or vouchers.

They note that the migration of affluent Catholics out of the inner cities, for example, left behind poorer parishes. From 1969 to 1978, the level of parish subsidies underwriting school budgets declined from an average of 63 percent of the budgets to 50 percent, and the share paid for by tuition rose from 27 percent to 40 percent.

Expenses continue to increase in the schools, the researchers point out, because of inflation, higher personnel costs due to the increasing number of lay teachers in the schools (see Education Week, June 16, 1982), deteriorating school buildings and increased maintenance costs, and the dwindling of funding sources accumulated in more prosperous years.

Because of an increased reliance on tuition, they say, the schools may have to rely more heavily on tuition hikes to pay their bills, something that “in many cases is impossible.”

Parents who place their children in inner-city Catholic schools are willing to pay the rising tuition, according to the study, because they believe the schools are superior educationally to public schools, and because they want their children exposed to the religious and moral values fostered by the schools.

Although the cost of tuition in the schools is burdensome for these parents--most of whom are poor--they strongly support the schools, finding the administrators in them more responsive and effective, the environments safer and more conducive to learning, and the emphasis on basic skills, discipline, and values to their liking, according to the study.

Further Tuition Increases

However, the parents would be severely strapped by further tuition increases, the researchers note. But at the same time, due to a variety of causes, many of the schools themselves are in serious financial difficulty and may have to raise tuitions to survive. Thus, the greatest threat to the 64 Catholic schools in eight cities studied by the researchers is present government policy, they conclude, which does not allow financial relief to parents in the form of either tuition tax credits or education vouchers.

President Reagan’s tax-credit proposal at last spring’s annual meeting of the National Catholic Education Association cheered Catholic educators.

But Father O’Brien is disappointed that the President did not go a step further and include provisions for refunds to tuition-paying families who are so poor that they do not have a tax liability.

Other major findings and arguments in the inner-city-schools study and Father Greeley’s book include the following:

Sixty-three percent of the families with an income of less than $5,000 were paying $300 or more to keep their children in the inner-city schools (the median tuition charge at the schools was $400).

The most frequent tuition rate (which varied from $200 to $800) was over $500, and the majority of parents were sending more than one child to school.

Although nearly two-thirds of the parents said they could not afford a $15 monthly tuition rise, only 28 percent said they would remove their child as a result, leading the researchers to conclude that the parents are “strongly convinced that these schools are in their children’s best interest.”

The schools have strong and effective principals, an atmosphere that the vast majority of teachers find conducive to learning, and well-defined goals: to provide quality education in a supportive environment and to convey religious and moral values.

The students were better behaved, judging by attendance, cooperation with school officials, respect shown for fellow students, and perceptions among parents that their children’s behavior had improved as a result of enrollment in one of the schools.

Father Greeley also found fewer discipline problems and attributed that to the presence of people from religious orders and a sense among students that discipline is an important part of the Catholic-school atmosphere.

Although the researchers found “less clear” evidence that minority students in Catholic schools do better academically than their public-school counterparts, Father Greeley said the “outcomes of Catholic secondary education for minority groups are impressively superior to those of public education.”

“The likelihood is that they [students in Catholic schools] do better academically,” Father O’Brien said. “But because of the difficulty of comparing test scores and the unavailability of test scores from some public schools,” the researchers were unable to say exactly how much better.

Parents choose the schools less out of a desire for social segregation than for educational opportunities; expulsion of “undesirable” students is not common (in 1979, 61 percent of the schools expelled no one and most schools expelled no more than one student per year).

The administration of the schools is less centralized than in public schools, with an emphasis on accountability at the local level and personal contact with students.

Demographic Shift

The ethnic and religious composition of the enrollments in inner-city Catholic schools dramatizes the demographic shift of the past 40 years, according to the inner-city study. About 56 percent of the families with children in the schools examined were black, 31 percent were Hispanic, 8 percent were white, 5 percent were Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, or Southeast Asian. Less than 1 percent were Native American.

The proportions of these different groups in numbers of students varied considerably from city to city. In New York, the majority of students were Puerto Rican, and in Los Angeles, the majority were Mexican-American.

In Washington and New Orleans, almost all the students were black, and the majority were black in Detroit, Chicago, and Milwaukee.

[According to the National Catholic Educational Association, in 1981-82 black students constituted 8.8 percent of the total Catholic-school population, Hispanics, 9.3 percent.]

The families studied were generally poor. In 1977, 15 percent had an annual income of less than $5,000. Seventy-two percent had an income of less than $15,000 per year (in contrast to 46 percent of all U.S. families that year).

Sixty-seven percent of the families were Catholic, 31 percent were Protestant (mostly Baptists, with smaller percentages of Methodists and Lutherans), and 2 percent claimed no church membership.

Black and Oriental parents tended to be better educated than comparable adults nationwide, according to the study, while white parents were found to be less educated by comparison.

Father Greeley found that parents of minority students in Catholic schools were more affluent, better educated, and had higher degree expectations for themselves when they were in school.

A question that was asked in both studies was: Are the students doing better because of the schools, or do the schools appear better because they receive highly motivated students?

‘Cream of the Crop’

The inner-city-schools researchers argue that the success of the Catholic schools is not because they “take the cream of the crop” or have expulsion policies with which they can easily rid themselves of undesirable students. “These schools serve the same community as the public schools,” Father O’Brien said. “They have remarkably egalitarian admissions policies.”

Father Greeley concludes that minority students in Catholic schools do better in part because of their family characteristics, but he argues that the discipline and quality of academic instruction--"the superior quality of Catholic schools"--are the major reasons for the students’ higher achievement levels.

He also states: “The success of Catholic secondary schools cannot be attributed to the fact that they are more likely to enroll students who come from upwardly mobile families and who are hence most likely to have powerful educational motivations.

“The opposite seems to be the case,” he continues. “The greatest differences between Catholic and public schools seems to be located among upwardly mobile young people [in both schools].

“Motivation for success seems to be more adequately rewarded with learning achievement in Catholic secondary schools than in public secondary schools.”

Schools in eight cities--New York, Washington, D.C., Detroit, Chicago, Newark, New Orleans, Milwaukee, and Los Angeles--were studied in the inner-city survey.

Ninety percent of the schools in the study were church-affiliated, and of those, nine out of 10 were associated with the Catholic Church. In all of the schools in the study, minority students constituted at least 70 percent of the total enrollment.

A version of this article appeared in the June 23, 1982 edition of Education Week as Benefits Outweigh Costs for Urban Catholic-School Students