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USA: The “great decline” of Catholic schools

Michael 1951 | CC BY 2.0

Paul De Maeyer - published on 08/02/18

One of the main causes: the impoverishment of the middle class

In the United States, Catholic schools have, for decades, been a synonym of academic excellence, independent of the social, economic, and religious situation of the family. So writes Annabelle Timsit on Quartz, quoting the former cardinal archbishop of Washington D.C. James A. Hickey, who died in 2004.

“We don’t educate children because they’re Catholic, but because we’re Catholic,” said the cardinal once, and his words were cited by former First Lady, the wife of George W. Bush, Laura Bush, during a speech in January 2008 at Holy Redeemer Catholic School in Washington, D.C.

But as Timsit observes, today “private Catholic schools are vanishing throughout the US.” This is illustrated by an investigation published in the trimestral research and opinion periodical Education Next, which describes a great decline of private Catholic schools in the USA.

General situation

Indeed, the panorama that emerges from the study, performed by researchers Richard J. Murnane, Sean F. Reardon, Preeya P. Mbekeani and Anne Lamb, isn’t particularly rosy. In 1958, the number of school-aged American children attending a private elementary school reached 15%. In the mid-1970s, the number had fallen to 10%, and in 2015, 9%.

In 1965, 89% of American children enrolled in a private elementary school (nearly 9 out of 10) were attending Catholic schools. Five years ago, in 2013, this statistic had fallen to 42%, less than half what it had been. In the same period, the percentage of private elementary school students who were enrolled in a non-Catholic religious institution rose from 8% to 40%. Also in the same period of time, the amount of private elementary school students attending nonsectarian schools increased from 4% to 18%, according to the study.

One of the explanations is socioeconomic; namely, the disparity of wealth, or the unequal distribution of income, which is increasing in the United States. In 1968, the study reports, 18 percent of elementary-school-age children from high-income families attended a private school, compared to 12 percent of children from middle-income families and 5 percent of children from low-income families. In 2013, the percentage of children from middle-income families had declined by almost half, to 7 percent, while the percentage of children from high-income families remained roughly steady at 16 percent.”

Regarding Catholic schools, the authors of the study also examined the rate of elementary school enrollment in the period from 1987 to 2011. During these 24 years, the study reveals, “enrollment rates for students from families in the bottom half of the income distribution fell slowly but steadily. Among middle-income students, the enrollment rate in Catholic schools fell from 7 percent to 3 percent in 2011. Meanwhile, the enrollment rate for high-income families declined by only 1 percentage point, from 11 percent to 10 percent.”

Increases in tuition fees

The flight of middle-class students is also due to the fact that in recent years the tuition required by Catholic schools has increased sharply. Consequently, Catholic schools have become more expensive—for many families, simply too expensive.

In 2010, the average school tuition reached $5,858 (in 2015 dollars, the study specifies), an amount which is more than six times greater than the average of $873 charged in 1970 by Catholic primary schools.

Although this is a significant increase, the number is still modest compared with the average tuition (adjusted for inflation) payed at nonsectarian private elementary schools, which rose from $4,120 in 1979 to $22,611 in 2011.

Non-Catholic religious elementary school tuition has also suffered an increase; on average, parents paid $3,869 in 1993 (adjusted for inflation), and $9,134 in 2011.

Fewer vocations

The question, therefore, is: why have Catholic institutions become more expensive? There are various causes. A first part of the answer lies in the drop in vocations in the USA, to both religious life and the priesthood. Indeed, without the constant commitment of entire generations of nuns, religious, and diocesan priests, Catholic schools in America would never have reached the high standard that still distinguishes them.

The decline in the number of vocations has struck some orders or congregations dedicated precisely to the field of education. According to a report drawn up by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA)—a research center founded in 1964 at the prestigious Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. — the Jesuit order in the United States, between 1970 and 2015, decreased in size by 70%, its members in the country dropping from 7,628 to 2,325. Even more drastic has been the decrease suffered by the Brothers of the Christian Schools (F.S.C.):73%, from 2,212 in 1970 to 589 in 2015.

The number of diocesan priests has also dropped, according to CARA‘s statistics: from 37,272 in 1970, to 25,868 in 2015 and 25,757 in 2017. The drop in numbers of sisters and nuns has been dramatic: from 160,931 in 1970 to 48,546 in 2015 and to 45,605 last year. During the same period (1970-2015) the number of American parishes without priests in residence jumped from 571 to 3,533.

The (economic) impact of sexual abuse

Together with the decrease in vocations, Catholic authorities have found themselves facing a serious dilemma: take on lay personnel, who are effective but more expensive, or close the doors of their schools. Many Catholic schools have chosen the second option, because there simply weren’t sufficient funds to keep them open. In the period of 1970-2010, the number of Catholic schools in the USA dropped by 37%, Timsit reports in his article.

And this isn’t just because the parishes—many Catholic schools in the USA are or were parochial schools—have, as in the rest of the world, experienced a drop in attendance at services, which has in turn led to a decrease in Sunday collections; it’s also because funds that used to be destined for educational projects have been used to pay for something quite different: heavy indemnities for victims of sexual abuse.

Just a couple of months ago, on May 31, the archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis (Minnesota) reached an agreement with 450 victims to pay a $210 million settlement. It is “one of the largest payouts to date in the U.S. over the Catholic church’s priest abuse scandal,” according to USA Today.

Last April, the diocese of Buffalo, NY, announced that it was putting on the market the residence of its leader, Bishop Richard J.Malone, in order to help compensate victims of childhood sexual abuse. The Tudor manor house is assessed at more than a million dollars.

Put in a difficult situation by the proportions of the scandal, a total of 15 Catholic dioceses in the USA have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, according to the Idaho Statesman, including the previously mentioned archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in January 2015. Chapter 11 bankruptcy code allows companies or organizations to reorganize without shutting down completely.

Vouchers: a mixed blessing

There is some light in this rather dark panorama. In Milwaukee, the Catholic Church has managed to keep its scholastic institutions’ doors open, thanks to a voucher program—that is to say, public funds that parents can use to pay the tuition for private schools (religious or not) of their choosing, as explained by an article published in The Atlantic in February 2017.

The clear beneficiaries of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), launched in 1990, are religiously affiliated schools, including parochial schools. Nearly 90% of the children who receive vouchers—almost 9 out of 10—attend a religious school.

But a study by economists Daniel M. Hungerman and Kevin J. Rinz, and church administrator Jay Frymark, reveals the less positive side of the program. At Milwaukee parishes with schools that accept vouchers, revenue from the program was greater than the contributions of the faithful.

The final effect is that the schools remain open but there aren’t funds for other initiatives. “There are no new church organs in Milwaukee churches,” Hungerman observes. The authorities haven’t ruled out that the faithful are becoming less generous, when they see that economic support is coming from other sources. Consequently, vouchers are a blessing, but a mixed one.

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