In other words, choosing a Catholic high school is a bit more complicated than it was back in the day. I never set foot in my high school until my first day of class. But thats not to say that the old way was better. In fact, as my wife and I escort our daughter to open houses, Im enjoying the new approachtheres something to be said about warm and friendly salesmanship.
There is one aspect of this whirlwind that has not been quite so delightful: the prospect of paying low five-figure tuition next year. I dont begrudge the pricey costa little less than $15,000 per year, or about what I paid for my undergraduate educationbecause I know that nobodys getting rich in Catholic education. But I do wonder about the future of Catholic schools in high-tax areas like my home state of New Jersey.
Over and over, I hear the same refrain from Catholic school parents in high-tax states: We pay thousands of dollars in taxes for schools we do not use, and we pay thousands more in tuition. We should get a tax credit, or a voucher, or some other rebate.
I cannot think of a worse argument in favor of some kind of relief for nonpublic school parents.
Believe me, I would welcome a tuition tax credit. Next year, in addition to my daughters high school tuition, my wife and I very likely will be digging deeper to pay for a new 7-12 Catholic school for my son, a middle-schooler. Our out-of-pocket tuition cost next year could amount to around 25 grand, so if New Jersey (and the courts) somehow got religion on tax credits, wed stand to benefit.
But heres my point: I think its a terrible idea to expect government to offer rebates or credits to parents simply because they dont use their communitys public schools. While I realize that most arguments about vouchers or credits are designed to give poor and ill-served students alternatives to bad public schools, lots of middle-class Catholic school parents believe they, too, ought to be given relief because they dont use the public schools. But they have to figure out a better argument, one that isexcuse the expressionless parochial.
Even though I dont use my municipalitys public schools, I am part of a community, part of a larger civil society. A hallmark of any community is its commitment to public education, financed by the entire community. We travel down a dangerous road if we decide that public institutions ought to be supported only by those who use them.
And yet thats the essence of the argument you hear repeatedly if you spend any time around Catholic school parents in high-tax states: We dont use the public schools, so we shouldnt have to pay to support them.
What worries me is not the argument itself, because in the end it goes nowhere and is probably more of a rant than it is a policy suggestion. What worries me is a variation on that argument: We pay so much money in property taxes, wed be fools not to use the public schools.
That very powerful argument, I believe, may lead to a new generation of Catholic school closings.
Urban dioceses, of course, have been consolidating or closing schools since the 1960s as Catholics moved to the suburbs and began a new round of institution-building. But as housing costs and taxation have skyrocketed in regions like the Northeast, and as Catholic school tuitions have increased to pay for the lay teachers who replaced most of the nuns and brothers, many suburban Catholic schools are facing the familiar crisis of lower enrollment and soaring deficits. The most recent round of closings in New York, for example, included several schools outside the city limits.
The reasons for suburban closings vary, but I suspect that high taxationand not a falling away from religious practiceaccounts for low or disappointing enrollments in otherwise thriving parishes. The coming crisis, I believe, will almost seem counterintuitive: schools in affluent or well-off parishes will be bleeding red ink.
I have begun to see this in New Jersey, proud home of the nations highest property tax burden. I know of suburban educators, administrators and parents who have tried to boost enrollment in all kinds of creative ways, but who simply cannot counter the taxation argument. This is the anomaly of parishes whose finances are fine, but whose schools have lots of empty desks.
What to do? Painful though it will be, a round of suburban consolidation seems inevitable at the elementary school level. And if that happens, as I believe it will, we can only hope that it will be well planned and thought out, rather than spurious and improvised.
Beyond that, I think the Catholic clergy, educators and parents have to look to other models as we try to instill our religious beliefs and traditions in our young people. Recently, I have observed ways in which other faiths pass along values and the Gospel message without schools. Ill explore that issue in my next column.