School Choice & Charters

Papal Visit Spurs Plea for ‘Saving’ Catholic Schools

April 10, 2008 | Corrected: February 22, 2019 6 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the report was issued by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington-based organization with which the Thomas B. Fordham Institute is affiliated.

Includes updates and/or revisions.

A report timed to coincide with the U.S. visit this week of Pope Benedict XVI highlights what it calls the “crisis” of a steadily shrinking pool of urban Catholic schools and outlines measures—some of which are already being tested on a limited scale—to arrest and possibly reverse the trend.

Since 1990, more than 1,300 Roman Catholic schools in the United States have closed, mostly in cities, notes the report released April 10 by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank that has touted the merits of Catholic schooling.

Closings have led to the estimated displacement of some 300,000 students who have been forced to attend other schools, says the report, which includes case studies of promising models and a survey of the attitudes of U.S. Catholics and the public at large toward inner-city Catholic schools.

“This is a tragedy,” said Michael J. Petrilli, Fordham’s vice president for national programs and policy and a former education official in the Bush administration. “At the very time when all of us are struggling with how to create new good schools in the inner city, we have good schools in the inner city that are closing down.”

The report points mainly to changing demographics and economics to explain the large number of Catholic school closures. Its release came just ahead of the pope’s planned April 15-20 visit to Washington and New York City. As part of the trip, Pope Benedict is scheduled to address educators from Catholic schools and universities at the Catholic University of America, in Washington, on April 17.

The Fordham Institute is not the only organization seeing the pope’s visit as a chance to highlight concerns about Catholic schools.

In New York City, two Catholic-school teachers’ unions have been embroiled in a dispute with the Archdiocese of New York over salaries, health benefits, and other issues. The smaller of the two unions, the Lay Faculty Association, representing 450 teachers at 10 Catholic high schools, was threatening last week to strike and hold protests during the pope’s visit if key issues were not resolved satisfactorily.

The institute’s report also was released as the White House prepares to host an April 24 conference on inner-city faith-based schools for disadvantaged students. President Bush and the first lady, Laura Bush, are expected to speak at the event.

Case Studies

In raising alarms about the closing of so many urban Catholic schools, the Fordham Institute report highlights an issue that’s long been of concern to the Catholic schools community and its supporters, and that’s attracted special attention the past few years.

For instance, a 2006 conference at Boston College was titled “Endangered Species: Urban and Rural Catholic Schools.”

A task force on Catholic education formed by the University of Notre Dame issued a report in December 2006 lamenting the “grim statistics and trends” on school enrollments and closures. It outlined proposed remedies, such as forming more partnerships between Catholic schools and Catholic colleges and universities, and making better use of marketing techniques to attract students.

“Will it be said of our generation that we presided over the demise of the most effective and important resource for evangelization in the history of the Church in the United States?” the Notre Dame report asked. “Surely not.”

At their peak around 1965, Catholic schools enrolled almost 4.4 million students, or 12 percent of all U.S. students in elementary and secondary grades, the Fordham Institute report says. For this school year, Catholic schools enroll about 2.3 million students, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.

The Fordham Institute study offers seven detailed case studies to highlight efforts to reverse the trend.

In Wichita, Kan., a vigorous campaign to encourage tithing has made Catholic schools free to all parishioners, the report says.

It also highlights the growth of independent networks of Catholic schools, such as the Chicago-based Cristo Rey Network, which have been supported in part by private philanthropies and which target disadvantaged children.

And the report points to the Alliance for Catholic Education, a Teach For America-style program at Notre Dame in which college graduates teach in underresourced urban Catholic schools across the country while earning a master’s degree in education.

Vouchers ‘No Panacea’

At the same time, the study suggests that private-school-voucher programs are “no panacea” for Catholic schools.

Enrollment in many inner-city Catholic schools in Milwaukee continues to decline, despite a state-funded tuition-voucher program for the city, the report says.

In the District of Columbia, which has offered federally funded vouchers for poor, mostly non-Catholic students since 2004, the Washington Archdiocese is moving to convert seven parochial schools into charter public schools. Archdiocesan leaders cite falling enrollments and rising operating deficits for the schools affected.

Karen M. Ristau, the president of the National Catholic Educational Association, based in Washington, praised the report for highlighting innovative efforts to sustain and improve Catholic schooling. She said the findings related to vouchers should not discourage advocates from pushing for such measures, but said it’s critical to undertake efforts beyond such government help.

“We can’t hang our hat on that,” Ms. Ristau said of vouchers. “There are all kinds of other things education and church leaders need to do in the meantime.”

Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington-based advocacy group that opposes publicly funded vouchers for religious schools, said any efforts to help Catholic schools should not involve government aid.

“If the Catholic private school system is in need of a bailout,” he said, “that’s going to be a job for the Catholic Church, not the federal government and not the state governments.”

Popularity High

Catholic schools appear to have a positive reputation among most Catholics and a majority of the general public, the Fordham Institute says.

A telephone survey of 800 adults conducted last month for the institute by the Washington-based Glover Park Group found that 66 percent of respondents view Catholic schools favorably. That was higher than respondents’ favorable views of the Catholic Church or of Pope Benedict.

Of Catholic respondents, 88 percent view Catholic schools favorably. The schools get particularly strong ratings from Catholic respondents and the general public for instilling moral values and offering a disciplined learning environment.

The survey found that the public views the quality of Catholic and public schools as about the same, with 58 percent giving Catholic schools grades of A or B, and 55 percent of public schools getting those grades. (The survey’s margin of error was plus or minus 3.5 percentage points for the full sample.)

The Fordham Institute report, which was underwritten by the New York City-based Louis Calder Foundation and the Achelis & Bodman Foundations, outlines a range of ideas to help stop the declines in the number of Catholic schools and their enrollments.

They include urging the Roman Catholic Church to embark on a serious campaign to make Catholic education affordable—even free—for all Catholics; calling on philanthropists to generously support innovative networks of Catholic schools that operate independently of diocesan structures; and doing a better job of marketing Catholic schools.

When closings are “inescapable” for financial reasons, the report calls for converting schools—especially those serving mostly non-Catholics—into charters, or making their facilities available at bargain prices to high-quality charter networks.

Such measures “would be better than closing them down and selling [the property] to a developer,” Mr. Petrilli said.

But the survey found that a majority of adults responding oppose converting Catholic schools into charters, and the idea found even less favor among Catholics, with 62 percent opposed.

“This may suggest a concern over losing what it is they like about Catholic schools,” the report says.

A version of this article appeared in the April 16, 2008 edition of Education Week as Papal Visit Spurs Plea for ‘Saving’ Catholic Schools


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