Sean Kennedy, a fellow at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia, is the author of the recent study “Building 21st Century Catholic Learning Communities: Enhancing the Catholic Mission with Data, Blended Learning, and Other Best Practices From Top Charter Schools” (PDF file). His article, “Charting a Future for Catholic Education”, on the City Journal website, is an appreviated version of his study; it argues that Catholic schools, if they are to survive and thrive, need to embrace certain qualities and strengths of charter schools, which now outnumber Catholic schools:
Though they enrolled 5.2 million students at the height of the baby boom, Catholic schools in the United States have struggled with declining matriculation in the decades since and today have just under 2 million students. This year marks a particularly striking milestone: the first time that charter schools, nationwide, will enroll more students than Catholic schools. Charters’ growing success is not without irony, since the independently run public schools have long imitated the Catholic model: high expectations, discipline, and school uniforms.
What accounts for the decline of Catholic schools and the rise of charters? In a word, competition, though it should be noted that the playing field hasn’t been level—Catholic schools (with a few exceptions) don’t receive public funds, as charters do. Nonetheless, Abe Lackman of Albany Law School analyzed New York State data and concluded that every new charter lures students away from a nearby Catholic school. According to John Eriksen, the outgoing superintendent of New Jersey’s Paterson Diocese Catholic schools, “charter schools are competition, and Catholic schools that don’t recognize that will be on the menu instead of having a seat at the table.”
For over a century, Catholic schools thrived without government dollars because they offered high-quality education and religious instruction to generations of immigrants and their children, often at low cost. Priests and nuns staffed the schools that Catholic parishioners subsidized. As American public education became increasingly captured by fads, Catholic schools stood as a refuge, offering strict academic standards and discipline.
These days, expenditures on lay teacher salaries and repair of dilapidated buildings have blown up the price tag at Catholic schools to three times the rate of inflation. In nominal dollars, per-pupil costs nearly doubled between 1998 and 2010, from $5,600 to $10,800; average tuition for incoming ninth-graders at Catholic schools more than doubled, from $4,300 to $8,800. Even as the Church subsidy has increased through financial-aid scholarships and cost-sharing, Catholic schools are becoming prohibitively expensive. Parents face a stark choice: part with a sizeable portion of their disposable income or find a cheaper alternative. Increasingly, charter schools present that alternative, offering a relatively comparable education courtesy of the taxpayer.
Yet the slow death of Catholic schools in the United States should not be abided quietly.