Quentin WodonApril 26, 2021
Catholic elementary and secondary schools serve 61.7 million children globally, with an additional 6.5 million students enrolled in Catholic higher education.Catholic elementary and secondary schools serve 61.7 million children globally, with an additional 6.5 million students enrolled in Catholic higher education.

We often hear about an international learning crisis as measured through standardized tests. We do not hear enough about other roles that education plays, including the transmission of values and faith. Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.” But this right is meaningless without “education pluralism,” or the existence of different types of schools and universities with their own approaches to moral values.

The 2021 edition of the Global Catholic Education Report, released on March 23, proposes a new measure of education pluralism based on the market shares of various education providers in an area. When one or few providers (including public school systems) have a very large market share, education pluralism would be lower. And as I suggest in the report, “education pluralism is essential because the right to education should respect parental (and student) priorities for what should be learned in school.”

Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.”

Catholic schools are vital to education pluralism. Catholic elementary and secondary schools serve 61.7 million children globally, with an additional 6.5 million students enrolled in Catholic higher education. Over the last four decades, enrollment in K-12 schools has more than doubled, and it has quadrupled for Catholic higher education. Yet this overall growth includes great differences among geographic regions, with different implications for how Catholic schools can recover from the Covid-19 crisis and continue making progress toward offering all children the chance to not only learn but also grow as individuals with strong values.

Different conclusions on pluralism are reached depending on the level of education being considered. For example, the United States has a very low level of education pluralism at the K-12 level, in part because it does not provide funding for nonprofit private schools, including Catholic schools (state-level voucher programs tend to be small). But it has a high measure at the college and university level, in part because public universities have a smaller pricing advantage at that level. (Even for in-state students, public colleges and universities are not free.)

The United States has a very low level of education pluralism at the K-12 level, in part because it does not provide funding for nonprofit private schools, including Catholic schools.

Strikingly, the United States alone accounts for a fifth of all students in Catholic higher education globally. By contrast, low-income countries account for only 2.7 percent of all students in Catholic higher education. So the next frontier in higher education is to ensure that children and youth in low-income countries complete their secondary education and then go to college. Enabling a larger share of students in low-income countries to go to college will take some time, but Catholic education can play a role here as well, as it has done for K-12 education.

The geographic patterns of enrollment are different for K-12 schools. While seven in ten students in Catholic higher education live in upper-middle- and high-income countries, seven in ten students in K-12 Catholic schools live in low- and lower-middle-income countries. The growth of Catholic K-12 schools during the past few decades has mostly taken place in sub-Saharan Africa (and, to a lesser extent, in South Asia), which is where levels of learning poverty (measured as the inability of 10-year-old children to read a simple text) are highest. In 2018, 40.9 percent of all students in primary Catholic schools lived in low-income countries, and another 29.7 percent lived in lower-middle-income countries, including India. (A list of countries by income group is available from the World Bank.) To look at things from another perspective, 11.0 percent of all primary school students in sub-Saharan Africa are in a Catholic school, and for low-income countries globally, the share is 13.7 percent.

This is a remarkable achievement and great news for the preferential option for the poor that the church is called to, but it remains a challenge to ensure that all children actually learn while in school. Catholic schools are not immune to the plague of learning poverty, and the challenge of overcoming it has grown in low- and lower-middle-income countries because online (or “distance”) learning has been difficult to implement during the Covid-19 pandemic. Ensuring education pluralism might actually help here as well. For example, in some countries, parents trust faith-based schools more than public schools for adolescent girls. Ensuring that faith-based schools can continue to operate may help in the effort to provide girls with more educational opportunities.

With its 2021 report, the Catholic Education Project hopes to promote recognition of the benefits of education pluralism. From there we can develop frameworks to allow Catholic and other private schools, including faith-based schools, to prosper and contribute to vibrant societies.

The Global Catholic Education Report is published annually by the Catholic Education Project; see a video about its key findings here. It is co-sponsored by the four leading international organizations representing Catholic education globally: the International Office of Catholic Education, the International Federation of Catholic Universities, the World Organization of Former Students of Catholic Education and the World Union of Catholic Teachers.

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