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Catholic schools struggling to survive. Can Twitter help?


Philippe Lissac | Godong

John Burger - published on 08/12/20 - updated on 08/11/20

Hashtag campaign seeks to shed light on grave danger the pandemic poses to Catholic education.

Can a Twitter hashtag save Catholic schools during the current health crisis?

Advocates of Catholic education are giving it their best shot, promoting the cause with the hashtag #savecatholicschools.

They’re worried because as the back-to-school season is just around the corner, parents, teachers, and school and diocesan administrators are uncertain how the coronavirus pandemic will affect them. With the recent rash of school closings in dioceses and archdioceses such as New York, Brooklyn, Boston and Newark, New Jersey, there’s an abundance of concern.

Several leading bishops have been lobbying Congress to include Catholic schools in a new round of pandemic-related emergency funding. In spite of questions about the constitutionality of such funding, Catholic school advocates are making the case that such assistance will benefit the greater society.

“The economic devastation that has hit so many of America’s families has made it impossible for many struggling families to continue paying tuition,” said a letter to Congressional leaders signed by Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), and other bishops. “As a result, already 140 Catholic schools have permanently closed their doors, and hundreds more are in danger of being unable to open in the fall. The closure of schools that serve urban areas are disproportionately harmful to low-income and Black children served by these schools.

The letter, also signed by Cardinals Seán P. O’Malley, OFM, Cap. of Boston, Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, Timothy M. Dolan of New York, Blase J. Cupich of Chicago, and Joseph W. Tobin, C.Ss.R. of Newark, and Bishop Michael C. Barber, SJ, of Oakland and chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Catholic Education, continued:

“Not only is this devastating to each of those school communities, their staff and business partners, but it has a detrimental impact on local taxpayers. For every student educated in a Catholic or non-public school, taxpayers save thousands of dollars. Nationwide, Catholic schools save state and local governments more than $20 billion annually.”

The letter asked for the U.S. Congress to designate 10% of emergency K-12 education funding for scholarship aid to low- and middle-income private school families.

In an article in the New York archdiocesan newspaper, Catholic New York, Cardinal Dolan said, “Two weeks ago, I shared the sad news that 20 of our schools, already facing soaring deficits, would not be able to re-open this fall due to steep declines in enrollment. Without assistance to our parents and children from the federal government, many more of our Catholic schools may have to close permanently. These closures will harm thousands of students from our archdiocese, and across the nation.”

Kathleen Porter-Magee, superintendent of Partnership Schools, a network of nine urban Catholic schools in New York and Cleveland, wrote in a guest column in the New York Daily News that the 20 Catholic schools that are being closed in New York serve nearly 3,500 students. “Given that current per-pupil spending in New York is roughly $23,000 per year, these 20 New York Catholic schools saved taxpayers approximately $80 million a year,” Porter-Magee wrote.

“More than half of these closing Catholic schools are located in some of the most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods in New York City — communities where critics complain that public school classrooms are already too overcrowded to implement recommended social-distancing guidelines, and neighborhoods that have been hit harder by COVID than anywhere in the country,” she pointed out.

Porter-Magee countered concerns about constitutionality by pointing out that many Catholic schools already have received federal aid from the U.S. Department of Education and from the Paycheck Protection Program, which was designed to pay wages at businesses or nonprofits impacted by the pandemic. And with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Espinoza v. Montana that states may not bar funding of religious schools solely on the basis of religion, Porter-Magee said that there should not be a concern about any violation of the “separation of Church and State.”
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