Catholic Schools Struggle to Stay Open

Catholic schools produce good results, but are having trouble competing with public and charter schools

Jane Q. Public, an inner-city parent, doesn’t want to send her kids to the local public school, despite promises of future improvement. Schools with slightly better scores are too far away or have no open seats. She has two choices in her neighborhood: A new, unproven charter school or a parochial school with a long history of educating inner-city students. She likes the Catholic school’s experienced teachers, orderly atmosphere and explicit teaching of values, but not the price tag. The charter school, supported by tax dollars, is free. Furthermore, the charter is growing, while there are rumors the parochial school is going to close.

In his State of the Union speech, President Bush called for $300 million for ‘Pell Grants for Kids’ “to help liberate poor children trapped in failing public schools” by giving them money to pay for an out-of-district public school or a private or church-run school. Students would be eligible if they’re assigned to schools that have missed No Child Left Behind standards for five years or those that graduate less than 60 percent of students.

Pell Grants for Kids would boost the survival chances for Catholic schools struggling to stay open in low-income neighborhoods. But a lame-duck president isn’t going to overcome Democrats’ hostility to vouchers. If poor children are going to be liberated, private philanthropists will have to take the lead.

More than a thousand Catholic schools have closed since 2000 and more are being lost every year. Enrollment, which peaked at 5.2 million in 13,000 schools in 1960, has fallen to 2.3 million students in 7,500 schools, reports the National Catholic Education Association.

Lawsuits to settle sexual abuse cases have drained church coffers and alienated parents. As middle-class Catholics leave cities for suburbs, urban parishes are finding it impossible to support their schools without outside help. And with few nuns to call on, Catholic schools have raised tuition to pay competitive salaries to lay teachers.

In 2006-07, the average elementary school tuition at Catholic schools was $2,607, while the cost per student was $4,268. The average Catholic high school charged $6,906, but spent $8,743.

While parochial schools are much cheaper than most private alternatives, they are having trouble competing against tuition-free charter schools, which are expanding rapidly in urban areas with low-performing schools.

In a few cities, such as Washington, D.C., and Milwaukee, tax-funded scholarships are helping students afford church-based private schools. Nearly half of Milwaukee’s Catholic school students come with vouchers. In Arizona, Catholic enrollment is inching up, helped by a state tax credit for donations to foundations that provide scholarships to private schools.

Some Catholic leaders figure it’s easier to join the charter movement than beat ’em. Seven money-losing Catholic schools in D.C. are trying to become charters, giving up religious instruction for funding. A Denver parochial school that serves low-income Hispanics also is considering converting.

In most cities, Catholic leaders are trying to keep their schools Catholic — and open. The model is Memphis, which was building new Catholic schools in the suburbs while inner-city religious schools serving poor students closed. An aggressive campaign to save the schools inspired a $15 million donation from several donors — non-Catholics who chose anonymity, writes Peter Meyer in Education Next. In the six years after the donation, nine schools reopened. “Almost 90 percent of the students lived at or below the poverty level; over 80 percent were non-Catholic,” Meyer writes. “Students are reading at grade level within a year of arriving; they are then outperforming their peers on standardized Terra Nova tests.”

In Washington, D.C., the Center City Consortium (CCC) has taken over 14 at-risk schools. The CCC handles teacher training, financial planning, fund-raising and public relations. Test scores are up significantly in consortium-managed schools.

In Philadelphia, Business Leadership Organized for Catholic Schools is raising funds — the goal is $50 million — to endow Catholic elementary schools in poor neighborhoods.

Ninety-nine percent of Catholic high school students graduate and 97 percent of graduates go on to college, says the National Catholic Educational Association. That track record has drawn support from donors of all religious backgrounds. For donors who want more brains for the buck, the Catholic schools are a good investment.