Church leaders have issued a mixed report on the health of the nation’s Catholic schools. In 2015 Catholic schools served nearly 24,000 fewer students than in 2014, although 14 new schools opened across the country.
The assessment was issued on March 29, the opening day of the National Catholic Educational Association’s annual convention in San Diego. Church leaders outlined some of the steps they are taking to support growth in Catholic school education, including fundraising for tuition assistance, marketing and strengthening academic and faith formation.
“There’s a strong demand and enthusiasm for Catholic schools,” said Bishop George V. Murry of Youngstown, Ohio, chairman of the N.C.E.A. board of directors. Speaking at an opening news conference, he said that around 27 percent of schools had waiting lists.
The schools continue to face significant challenges, however. Closings and consolidations led to a total loss of 43 schools this academic year, Sister Dale McDonald, a Sister of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and N.C.E.A.’s director of public policy and educational research, reported.
Total enrollment in the 2015-16 academic year stood at almost 2 million students, a 1.2 percent decrease from the previous year, Sister McDonald said, adding that the figure was a far cry from the peak of 5.2 million in the 1960s. The findings of the annual report on the 6,525 schools included:
• Catholic schools saved state and local education agencies more than $24 billion per year, based on the per pupil cost of public education, which is $12,000 annually.
• Catholic school student-to-teacher ratios remain good compared to public schools. The ratio is 13-to-1 in Catholic elementary schools and 11-to-1 in secondary schools.
• 85 percent of Catholic school graduates attend four-year universities, compared to 38 percent from public schools.
• 16 percent of students in Catholic schools are Hispanic.
• 78 percent of Catholic schools have students with mild to moderate disabilities.
“We often hear that Catholic schools don’t do disabilities,” Sister McDonald said. “[But] we try to care for all students and have made significant progress in that area.”
It is a challenge to schools and the association itself to “spread the good news about a Catholic school education” using media and social media, said Thomas Burnford, N.C.E.A.’s interim president.
In the public arena, he said, it is important to build on legislation that provides some form of financial assistance to parents to help them choose a private or faith-based education for their children. To date, 27 states and the District of Columbia do so, enabling 1.5 million families to exercise that choice nationwide, he said.
He and the other leaders who spoke said it was important to communicate to the broader public why Catholic schools matter in today’s society.
“They are not important because of the defects of the public school system,” Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego emphasized. Catholic schools are important because “we reach into the hearts and souls of our students,” he said, and help them to understand the importance of sacrificing their own self-interest for the good of the whole community, society and nation.
“This contribution of our Catholic schools to the common good has never been more useful in our history than it is at this moment,” the bishop said.