First, let me make it clear that I am not a parochial school “hater.” In fact, I have spent most of my life in Catholic education. My parish had a high school, so I spent my K-to-12 years in one school, taught by wonderful Benedictine nuns and priests and dedicated lay teachers. From there, it was on to a Catholic college and Catholic graduate school. My entire academic career has been spent teaching in Catholic colleges and universities. Some might describe my education as narrow. But it certainly has given me an appreciation for the contributions of Catholic school education to our society.
But the model that supported my education is broken. It needs to be replaced by a new model. Simply put, the economics of the old parochial school system no longer work, and the result is serious financial stress. To put it in language more palatable to a faith-based organization, it is no longer good stewardship on the part of Catholic dioceses and parishes to continue supporting the old model of Catholic parochial schools. As distasteful as this thought is to those who are heavily invested in the parochial school system, it is time to recognize this reality and search for a new model.
The fact of the matter is that the parochial school system has been in decline for some time. For example, according to the Official Catholic Directory, since 1965 the number of Catholic elementary schools has declined by 50 percent, while the number of students attending Catholic elementary schools has declined by 69 percent. The pace of this decline has increased in the past few decades. As I said above, the reasons boil down to basic economics—supply and demand.
Supply-Side Factors: No Nuns
On the supply side, the primary reason typically given for the financial stress that parochial schools face is related to the decline in the number of women religious, most of whom carried out their apostolate by teaching in parochial schools. Looking back, it is a scandal to see how little these dedicated women were paid. But low labor expenses kept parochial schools affordable. Today the sisters have been replaced by lay teachers, who are also scandalously underpaid but whose compensation is many times that of the sisters. The increase in parochial school labor costs is the most frequently cited reason for their financial stress.
But this is too simplistic a view. Other factors, at least as influential on parochial school finances, have also been in play. One is the mismatch between the current location of parochial schools and the location of the Catholic population. At one time Catholics were heavily concentrated in the urban areas of the Northeast and Midwest. Naturally, that is where the bulk of Catholic parishes and their associated schools were built. Over time the Catholic population has migrated to the suburbs and increasingly to the South and West. They have been joined by immigrants, who have also settled in large numbers in the South and West. But the parishes and parochial school buildings still tend to be located in urban areas in the Northeast and Midwest. Dioceses are faced with the prospect of nearly empty parochial schools in their urban areas while schools in their suburbs and the South and West are underbuilt. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that many urban parochial schools find themselves serving a population that struggles to afford parochial school tuition. Many of these students are not Catholic (the saying goes, we serve this population not because they are Catholic but because we are).
But there is even more to this story. According to data collected by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, half of all Catholic parishes in the United States were established before 1950, nearly a third of them before 1930. Presumably the age of parochial school buildings mirrors this distribution. There are serious maintenance issues that accompany structures this old. Parishes have not always been able to keep up with this maintenance. Even if these school buildings are safe and up to code (many are not), catching up on the deferred maintenance adds another layer of expense.
Add to all this the competition that parochial schools face. Not only do suburban parochial schools face competition from well-funded suburban public schools, but increasingly in recent years, urban parochial schools face competition from publicly funded charter schools that for a variety of reasons offer more competition than do urban public schools.
The final supply factor, and perhaps the one that should be of most concern, is that Catholics are notoriously low givers to their church. Survey after survey has established that Catholics contribute about half as much to their parish as Protestants contribute to their congregations (1.1 to 1.2 percent of household income for Catholics, 2.2 to 2.5 percent for Protestants). To put this in context, if the typical Catholic household contributed at the same rate as the typical Protestant household (not necessarily tithing, just the same 2.2 percent of their income) U.S. Catholic parishes would receive an additional $8 billion in contributions annually. Or to put it another way, each parish would see its annual contributions double. Low Catholic giving inhibits each parish’s ability to provide the whole array of services that we have come to expect. In terms of the parochial schools, this limits the ability of parishes to continue to subsidize their parochial schools at the level at which they have become dependent.
The demand-side factors center around the fact that there are simply fewer school-age children who might reasonably be expected to attend parochial schools. According to data in the Official Catholic Directory, the U.S. Catholic population has grown by 44 percent since the year 1965. In spite of this growth, Catholic marriages have decreased by 52 percent over that same period. Fewer couples are choosing to marry in the church. A couple that does not choose to have a Catholic wedding is not as inclined to send their children to a parochial school. This is compounded by the fact that despite the growth in the U.S. Catholic population, infant baptisms have decreased by 46 percent since 1965. This is probably in part because Catholic families are having fewer children. But it is also consistent with the trend toward fewer Catholic marriages. Millennial Catholics who are not getting married in the church are also not having their children baptized. This decreases the potential market for parochial schools.
What to Do About It: Three Approaches
Unless these supply and demand trends are reversed (not likely), we need to develop a new model for providing Catholic elementary school education. What will this new model look like? There are three primary approaches that have been tried nationwide to preserve the parochial school system.
The most frequently used policy is simply to merge parochial schools into regional schools. Combining the student population of multiple schools can result in one stronger school. But, of course, this approach is not without its problems. Those stakeholders whose school was shut down as part of the merger can be expected to be upset and often fail to support the new school. And even the stakeholders in the school that “won” by becoming the home campus may be resentful of the need to share facilities with students from other parishes. This could influence parishioners’ decision to send their children to the school and their desire to support the merged school financially, either through fundraising or a parish subsidy. When everyone owns the school, no one owns the school.
A second approach, often used in conjunction with the creation of regional schools, has been to promote public funding for private—including parochial—schools. These efforts have been opposed on the basis that they violate the establishment clause found in the First Amendment of the Constitution. Some states have had success in getting variations of public funding programs passed by their legislatures in the form of voucher or tax-credit plans. But even where they have been approved, all of these programs suffer from two shortcomings. One is that they tend to restrict the number of eligible students. The other is that the value of the assistance provided typically falls far short of the cost of the child’s education. The possibility of expanding these programs to more states and making them more accessible is limited. Besides the Constitution’s establishment clause, public school teacher unions can be very powerful lobbyists against state funding.
Those states that have been successful in getting some form of public funding for private schools enacted have typically relied on the 2002 Supreme Court case Zelman v. Simmons-Harris.
A third and more recent tactic has been tried in the Washington, D.C., Indianapolis and Miami archdioceses, among others. They have converted some parochial schools to public charter schools. The benefit of this approach is that it makes these schools eligible for public funding, and therefore they are tuition free. These schools must eliminate any vestiges of Catholic identity during the school day, although some offer after-school religious education.
It does not take a major leap to envision a situation where all parochial schools are converted to a system of public charter schools offering the rigorous and values-based education that have always been the hallmark of parochial schools while providing religious education as a voluntary after-school activity, separate from the regular curriculum. The combination would provide the holistic education that parochial school advocates value. And it would also enable the church to continue its ministry to the underserved in the nation’s inner cities.
This process is not without its complications. There can be significant up-front costs and legal hoops to jump through. Studies have shown that converted schools draw not only a larger student body but also more students who are behind academically and more students with special needs. To pass constitutional muster, daily classroom activities must be neutral with respect to religion. The establishment of Catholic charter schools would no doubt face the same type of opposition that other public funding options have faced. But this arrangement clearly meets the standards set forth in Chief Justice Rehnquist’s majority opinion in Zelman.
While some parochial schools are thriving, the system as we have come to know it is in decline. The U.S. Catholic school establishment has two options to address this situation. On the one hand, they can continue down the worn path of trying to buck the economic factors that are behind the decline by merging schools while lobbying for incremental advances against the establishment clause. Or they can recognize that the current system is a dinosaur. The economic factors behind the decline are not going to be reversed. It is time to think outside the box by searching for new models for delivering the kind of education that Catholics have come to know and treasure. In the near future that model revolves around replacing parochial schools with a system of charter schools.