It’s just difficult to see against the tests, the balance sheets, and the armada of charter and magnet schools competing in your home waters.
As much as our public schools take a beating, few institutions have take as severe a scourging as the Catholic Church in the US.
At the height of the baby boom in the 1960s, roughly 5.2 million students were enrolled at Catholic schools in communities across the country, according to a recent City Journal article by Sean Kennedy, a scholar at the Lexington Institute and co-author of a study on Catholic education. Today, less than half attend a Catholic institution, only 2 million. Running without government dollars, per-pupil costs skyrocketed between 1998 and 2010, from $5,600 to $10,800. Average tuition for incoming ninth graders at Catholic high schools has more than doubled, from $4,300 to $8,800.
The result is a massive pandemic of building closure: between 2000 and 2012, 1,942 schools were either closed or consolidated (combined with other schools). 167 closed or consolidated in 2012 alone. A recent report by the Archdiocese of New York stated at least 24 local schools will close, affecting over 4,000 students in the area.
How did it happen? How did arguably the greatest private school system in America take such a beating?
Catholic schools, in a way, are a victim of their own success.
The Catholic parochial school system began in the mid-1800s as a response to the rising public school movement in America. Early public school systems, in cities and towns, stressed preparation for adult life as farmers and workers—a preparation that included religious instruction. Public schools encouraged Bible study, particularly the King James Bible used in Protestant churches. Thus, public education was seen as a vehicle for evangelizing Protestant religious values.
The sea of Catholic immigrants in the mid-1800s, from Ireland and Germany, needed schools that reflected their own values. Either through the diocese or independently, parochial schools of all levels would spring up right next door to local public schools. The parochial system would grow to essentially become a mirror of the public school system, with elementary and secondary schools local to each city and town, as well as Catholic schools of higher learning (Boston College, Notre Dame, Holy Cross, Georgetown, etc.) that served as centers of university training for Catholics who still felt discriminated at the Puritan, Presbyterian and Anglican campuses of Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Columbia.
Over time, Catholic schools developed a reputation for discipline, spiritual nourishment and academic excellence. Without government money, these schools provided high-quality, low-cost education for immigrants and their children. Clergy acting as the faculty kept costs low while instilling rigorous standards of discipline and academic achievement.
When new theories or fads would ravage American public education starting in the 1960’s, Catholic schools were a haven of stability, providing excellence the old-fashioned way: discipline and hard work.
Parochial school would become the true vehicle of upward mobility: many who rose from poverty to positions of power attribute their success to the values and rigor instilled in a Catholic education.
By the 1990’s, however, Catholic schools obtained a serious rival—a rival funded by public dollars.
The rise of No Child Left Behind was parallel to the rise of the charter school movement, schools funded by public monies but operating independently of the public school system. When parents couldn’t afford rising costs of Catholic school, the charter school became a less-costly alternative. Many of these charters have adopted norms and values long cultivated in the Catholic school system: high academic expectations, rigorous discipline, school uniforms.
The result is a hemorrhaging of enrollment at an unprecedented scale. 2012 marked the first year that charter school enrollment is higher than in Catholic schools, surging past the 2 million mark. Currently they account for about 5% of children in public schools, and their numbers continue to rise.
Does this mean the slow death of the Catholic school, though? Not necessarily.
Competition from charter schools has crippled a longstanding tradition of American education. The question now is: should it be this way? Is there a way for Catholic schools to regain lost ground?
Part of the problem is financial. Catholic schools are playing on an uneven field: charters can, and often do, get continuous funding from public coffers, whilst the local parochial school is kept up largely by the parishioners and the local diocese. This is a disparity that cannot really be leveled without massive government spending in religious schools—a controversial move on many levels.
Dioceses across America are learning to make do with less—a painful lesson in efficiency that will probably be helpful in the end. Though the closures are painful, the Catholic system as a whole can still be main sustainable for at least the immediate future.
Yet fiscal discipline is only part of the solution. To really re-establish its foothold on American schooling, the parochial school needs to emphasize those things that charters often get so wrong, and that St. Mary’s and St. Bernard’s get so right.
In terms of morals and ethics, it’s a no-brainer. Recent scandals aside, at least on paper, the parochial school is a model for moral education, at least through the lens of Catholicism. Catholic schools have long opened their doors to non-Catholics, as long as they take classes in religion and sit through the obligatory exercises. Through this osmosis, many non-Catholics can’t help but develop ethically in this environment. Historically, this deep moral education has also been coupled with a thorough civic education. Catholic students also tended to be proud American citizens—which upends completely the discriminating notions of a century ago that equated Catholicism with anti-Americanism.
More importantly, though, parochial schools never mess with what works in education. It’s a lesson we all know too well.
Charter schools, especially the well-known ones, often pride themselves on being up-to-date with the latest educational trends and theories. Basically, they tie themselves to a philosophy or theoretical framework, drill their teachers and students to death in it, and if it doesn’t work, they find another theory or fad and start the process all over again.
Catholic schools never had to worry about Danielson frameworks, Bloom’s taxonomy, Understanding by Design, Lucy Calkins, Fountas and Pinnell, or any other fly-by-night notions that catch an administrator’s eye like a shiny toy. They understood long ago that as long as a dedicated staff is backed up by an administration hellbent on discipline and hard work, no theory was really necessary.
Unlike the twits that dictate education policy today, Catholic schools knew for a long time that the school environment matters a whole lot more than any newfangled theory.
Does that mean parochial schools can’t do a better job with English Language Learners or children with special needs? Absolutely not. In fact, many of the ding-dong theories we disparage can work for them on a limited basis. Yet the majority of kids being sent to Catholic school are not being sent there because of Wiggins or Calkins or Fountas & Pinnell—they’re being sent because Sister Mary Margaret will conjure the fires of Hell if little Johnny doesn’t do his work.
In a way, the strict discipline and focus on work in the Catholic school is a lot more nurturing than even the most liberal-minded charters—places where the chanting, the slogans, and the high fives seem so…antiseptic…artificial…
…dare I say…fascist?
Catholic schools have a role as a viable alternative to the public school system. They provide a discipline and focus that no charter can dream of providing, combined with a moral compass that makes KIPP look like a Dickensian workhouse.
Once they can get their financial house in order, America’s Catholic schools need to focus on how to compete effectively with charters and stake their ground in the 21st century education landscape.
After all, they do answer to a higher power.