The State of Catholic Schools in the US

Signs of hope despite a bleak prognosis

A student at St. Mary of Czestochowa School in Cicero

A student at St. Mary of Czestochowa School in Cicero, Ill.

The Church worldwide is in the midst of a Catholic education boom. Between 1997 and 2008, the number of Catholic primary schools rose from 86,505 to 93,315—an increase of a dozen schools every week—to keep pace with a 20 percent increase in enrollment in the same period. Likewise, the number of Catholic secondary schools grew from 34,849 to 42,234—an increase of 13 schools each week—alongside a 28 percent rise in enrollment. These gains outstripped the growth in overall Catholic population (16 percent) and world population (15 percent) during the same period.

In the midst of this Catholic education boom worldwide, the Church in the United States has suffered a dramatic decline in its education apostolate. According to the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA), the number of Catholic schools fell from 8,146 to 6,980 between 2000 and 2010—a loss of 117 schools every year. Combined primary and secondary school enrollment also declined 22 percent, from 2,647,301 to 2,065,872.

The roots of this decline stretch back decades. “School enrollment reached its peak during the early 1960s when there were more than 5.2 million students in almost 13,000 schools across the nation,” according to the latest NCEA school data report. In 1990, some 2.5 million students were enrolled in 8,719 schools. The 1990s saw the loss of 573 schools, even as enrollment grew by 150,000. The enrollment gains of the 1990s, however, were wiped away by the steep declines of the last decade.

According to statistics published in the 2011 Catholic Almanac, the 10 dioceses with the highest combined primary and secondary school enrollment are Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles, Brooklyn, Cleveland, St. Louis, Cincinnati, St. Paul-Minneapolis, and Boston. On the other hand, 10 dioceses—Juneau, Anchorage, Lubbock (Texas), Fairbanks, Baker (Oregon), Las Cruces (New Mexico), Amarillo, Pueblo (Colorado), and Cheyenne—have total enrollments of under 1,000 students.

The dioceses with the highest and lowest numbers of students, however, are not necessarily the dioceses where Catholic schools are proportionately strongest and weakest. The 15 dioceses with the highest ratio of Catholic school students to overall Catholic population are Covington (Kentucky), Memphis, Louisville, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Wichita, Jefferson City, Omaha, Mobile, Evansville (Indiana), Jackson (Mississippi), Kansas City-St. Joseph, St. Louis, Lexington (Kentucky), and New Orleans.

Conversely, the 15 dioceses with the weakest culture of Catholic education—the dioceses with the lowest ratio of Catholic school students to overall Catholic population—are Brownsville, Texas (which has the lowest ratio), Las Cruces, Las Vegas, Fresno, Lubbock, El Paso, San Bernardino, Laredo (Texas), San Angelo (Texas), Pueblo, Corpus Christi, Anchorage, Fort Worth, Juneau, and Dallas. Catholic school culture, in general, is thus strongest near the Ohio River, the central Mississippi River, and parts of the Gulf Coast; it is weakest in portions of Texas, California, and in Alaska.

Latinos and Catholic schools

Thirty-five percent of Catholics in the United States are Hispanic, as are the majority of Catholics under 30.

“Despite research that indicates that Hispanic students in Catholic schools are dramatically better prepared academically for postsecondary education and productive careers than Hispanic students in other kinds of schools, only 3 percent of school-aged Hispanic children are enrolled in Catholic schools,” Marie Powell, executive director of the Secretariat of Catholic Education at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, told CWR. Blessed with burgeoning Catholic populations, the Texas and California dioceses with particularly low ratios of Catholic school students to Catholics are facing steep challenges in educating this future generation of Catholics.

“Adapting the culture of Catholic schools and parishes” so that the presence of Latino Catholics is more highly “valued and appreciated” is thus one of the leading challenges facing Catholic education in the United States, says Powell. She described two initiatives that have shown promise in helping “Catholic schools more accurately reflect the changing demographics of the Catholic Church in the United States.” In the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the Catholic Education Foundation has made 110,000 tuition awards totaling $108 million since 1987. The University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) offers an English as a New Language program intended to help faculty teach students whose native language is not English.

In a 2008 report, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a leading conservative education think-thank, lauded ACE as “a sort of Teach For America for inner-city parochial schools” that “shows much promise.”

Noting that there are nearly 700,000 empty seats in Catholic schools and that the “dioceses with the highest number of empty seats are located around the largest metropolitan areas with large numbers of Latinos,” a University of Notre Dame task force in 2009 set forth the ambitious goal of increasing the number of Hispanic students in Catholic schools from 290,000 to one million by 2020.

Holy Cross Father Joe Corpora, who heads ACE’s Catholic School Advantage campaign, told CWR that “everyone—bishops, superintendents, pastors, principals, school boards, parents—is interested in this initiative of enrolling more Latino children in our Catholic schools.”

“There is a lot of work to do,” he adds. “There is an urgency to the task…. The entire approach to recruiting and welcoming Hispanic families and children is different from how one would recruit non-Hispanic children.”

The task force’s 2009 report found that “affordability was the first and most commonly cited reason why parents did not place their children in Catholic schools.” In addition, the report found that Latino parents had difficulty obtaining information about Catholic schools, that schools needed to address daycare and transportation issues, and that “language barriers are real—parents expressed the desire for Spanish-speaking contacts at the school to provide information and guidance.”

“Among Hispanics, Catholic schools were considered privileges only for the very wealthy,” explains Donald Miller, the Diocese of Fort Worth’s superintendent of schools. “New immigrants to our country come with little or no knowledge or history of attending Catholic schools, and a good many without the financial resources to seek them out.”

The number of Catholics in the Diocese of Fort Worth has increased almost tenfold since its formation in 1969, says Miller, and the diocese has built nearly a dozen new parishes in the past 15 years. “Balancing the needs of the parishes for space and services against the needs for more schools has been difficult,” he says. Nonetheless, the diocese has made substantial investments in Catholic education. “We have torn down and totally rebuilt one of the four center-city schools, built an addition doubling one of them in size, and renovated the other two. The diocese committed more than $7 million to these four projects,” he says.

In addition, Fort Worth Bishop Kevin Vann launched a successful capital campaign that raised $10 million in scholarship endowment funds. Still, financial challenges remain: “While the diocese and the local parishes and schools provided, in total, more than $2 million in tuition assistance [this year], the demonstrated need for the current school year exceeded $4.5 million,” says Miller.

Other challenges

Making greater inroads among the Latino majority of Catholic children is not the only challenge facing Catholic schools in the United States today. With the average elementary school tuition now at $3,383 and the average secondary school tuition at $8,182, the same concerns about affordability that keep Latino parents from sending their children to Catholic schools are barriers to other parents as well. As expensive as tuition is for many Catholic families, it does not meet the actual per-pupil cost of Catholic schooling ($5,436 for elementary schools, $10,808 for secondary schools), according to the NCEA. In contrast, the average per-pupil cost for elementary and secondary students at the nation’s public schools is $10,297.

Costs have risen largely because of the collapse of vocations to the religious life in the United States; the number of women religious (in previous decades the primary educators in Catholic schools) declined from 179,954 in 1965 to 57,544 in 2010. Today, only 2.6 percent of teachers in Catholic schools are nuns, 0.1 percent are brothers, and 0.3 percent are clergy, according to the NCEA; 84 percent are laywomen, and 13 percent are laymen.

Catholic schools have thus experienced a transition “from a basically free workforce in the persons of religious priests, brothers, and women (supported by religious communities) to one comprised predominantly of the laity, who rightly must receive a just wage and benefits,” says George Henry, superintendent of Catholic education for the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

“Loss of the living endowment contributed by the ministry of the religious had serious financial implications for operating schools,” says Dr. Dan Peters, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. “Within the last school year, the cost of K-12 education in our diocese was more than $79 million.”

“What is the greatest challenge facing our Catholic schools today? Providing just compensation for our staff while protecting our families,” says Daryl Hagan, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Evansville. School principals as well as diocesan school leaders find this to be a difficult balancing act. “Our greatest challenge today is growing our annual fund so that we can continue to offer competitive salaries, full benefits, and a generous pension plan to our teachers, while maintaining an affordable tuition for our students’ families,” says Chris Fay, principal of Christian Brothers High School in Memphis.

While New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Phoenix, and many cities in the South and Southwest have experienced population growth over the last six decades, numerous cities across the Northeast and Midwest are waning. Since 1950, Buffalo’s population has declined by 310,000, Baltimore’s by 312,000, Pittsburgh’s by 366,000, Cleveland’s by 484,000, and St. Louis’ by 500,000. Philadelphia has lost 525,000 residents; Chicago, 770,000; and Detroit, 939,000.

These demographic changes have had a devastating effect on the nation’s Catholic schools. “When Catholic school enrollment peaked in 1965, no one could foresee that shifting demographics and rising operational costs would force the closing of half of all parochial schools over the next 50 years,” says Peters.

“We are experiencing great changes in the demographics of the Catholic population,” adds Dr. Jim Rigg, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. “Many Catholics are moving into suburban areas, leaving urban schools with very little Catholic base. We have supported many of our urban schools through a number of organized programs, but difficulties still persist.”

While “there is a tremendous sense of Catholicity surrounding the city of Cincinnati,” continued Rigg, “the Cincinnati area is shrinking as people move south and west. Not only are fewer Catholics attending our schools, but we have a shrinking population base throughout the archdiocese.”

“Without a doubt, finances and demographic shifts present the biggest challenges to Catholic education,” concurs Leisa Schulz, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Louisville. Nonetheless, she says, other challenges are present: “articulating the value of Catholic schools; continually enhancing and improving academic and faith formation programs; identifying appropriate governance structures and providing ongoing training for board members and balancing a ‘systems approach’ with individual initiative and ownership at the local level; and cultivating future leaders of Catholic schools.”

The abandonment of the practice of the faith by large numbers of the nation’s Catholics also poses a significant challenge to the future of Catholic schools. “Fewer families participating in Catholic parish life certainly affects their interest in choosing a Catholic school for their children,” says the USCCB’s executive director of education Powell. “The challenge for stabilizing enrollment in Catholic schools is closely linked to the success of New Evangelization efforts to invite and motivate non-participating Catholics to become active in the faith and to have participating Catholics see the link between a Catholic school education and the future they wish for their children.”

Miller, Fort Worth’s superintendent, agrees. “Certainly, a declining vibrancy in parish life and Sunday Mass attendance over the last decades have impacted parents’ priorities and understanding of their responsibility as their children’s primary educators, including formation in the Catholic faith.”

In addition, the three decades following the close of the Second Vatican Council saw an increasing number of Catholic parents, apostolates, and publications become concerned about the loss of Catholic identity and deficiencies in catechesis in some Catholic schools.

In a report delivered to the US bishops in June 1997, Archbishop Daniel Buechlein of Indianapolis gave authoritative expression to many of these concerns by finding a “consistent trend of doctrinal incompleteness and imprecision” in the catechetical series in use in the nation’s Catholic schools and religious education programs. Widespread doctrinal deficiencies, according to the archbishop, included “insufficient attention to the Trinity and the Trinitarian structure of Catholic beliefs and teachings…an obscured presentation of the centrality of Christ in salvation history and an insufficient emphasis on the divinity of Christ…an indistinct treatment of the ecclesial context of Catholic beliefs and magisterial teachings…an insufficient recognition of the transforming effects of grace…a pattern of inadequate presentation of the sacraments…pattern of deficiency in the teaching on original sin and sin in general…[and] a meager exposition of Christian moral life.”

In the years that followed, as publishers more frequently sought a formal declaration from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops that their works were in conformity with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, some of the worst defects were remedied.

Nonetheless, concerns about Catholic identity remain. In 2007, an Oakland Catholic high school performed the rock musical Hair, cautioning that the play was for mature audiences only. “Four Catholic high schools in the Archdiocese of San Francisco are scheduled to host a performance of the condom-endorsing sex-education play Secrets,” California Catholic Daily reported in 2009. In spring 2011, the website Catholic Lane published an article advising parents on how to respond to Catholic school teachers and administrators who insist on showing R-rated movies as part of the curriculum. “In many struggling dioceses…the schools’ Catholic identity has been slowly eroded, replaced with focuses on athletics, academics, or whatever other educational avenue the tuition-paying families desire,” the Fordham Institute stated in its 2008 report.

Within this context, education leaders in the dioceses with the most successful Catholic school programs have repeatedly emphasized the importance of a strong Catholic identity. In 2007, Bishop Roger Foys of Covington mandated that the Didache Series, widely recognized for its doctrinal fidelity (and sold by Ignatius Press, the publisher of this magazine), be used in high school religion classes and religious education programs. “The teaching of the Catholic faith in our schools and parish religious education programs needed to be uniform, consistent, and thorough,” he said at the time.

“The school must have a vibrant Catholic identity,” Archbishop Robert Carlson of St. Louis said in a March 2011 pastoral letter. “It must be clearly and unquestionably a Catholic school, and everything about the school’s academic and formation programs must be grounded in the teaching and practice of the Roman Catholic Church. Every person in a Catholic school—regardless of his or her faith tradition or social, economic, or ethnic background—should be growing in their understanding and appreciation for what the Catholic Church teaches.”

“Our schools seek to be authentically Catholic,” Archbishop Thomas Rodi of Mobile told CWR. “Parents know…that Catholics are a small minority in our archdiocese. They know that their children are growing up in a society which is increasingly secular and pluralistic and where their children are exposed to many competing sets of values that are often un-Christian, if not anti-Christian. In addition to seeking a great education for their children, they wish that their children attend a Catholic school where the values and beliefs taught at home are reinforced and witnessed to at school.”

“The Catholic culture of our schools permeates every class and activity of our schools because we view the formation of disciples of Jesus Christ as our mission,” says Bob Voboril, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Wichita. “We are Catholic first, Catholic every place, and Catholic all the time.”

“More than crucifixes displayed on the walls and students wearing plaid, a Catholic school must invite its students into a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ,” added Dan Peters of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. Quoting that diocese’s head, Bishop Robert Finn, Peters says, “Catholic schools exist to help parents in what is their most important duty—to form holy children and to help them get to heaven.”

Another sign of hope is the increase in vocations for two already-thriving religious communities whose members teach in schools. Twenty-seven women entered the 270-member Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia of Nashville last year, and 21 entered the 110-strong Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist. Both communities emphasize the wearing of a full habit and fidelity to the teaching of the Church; the average age of a Nashville Dominican is 36, while the average age of a member of the Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist is 26.

Education leaders in the dioceses with the most successful Catholic school programs also spoke of the importance of strong episcopal leadership. “When Archbishop Robert J. Carlson became the new archbishop of St. Louis almost two years ago, he declared that ‘Catholic schools are my first priority,’” says Miller.

“Bishop Gerald Gettelfinger [bishop of Evansville since 1989] is an education bishop,” says Hagan.

“I believe our schools are strong because of the great support of our bishop [Ronald Gainer],” adds Tim Weaver, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Lexington. “Four of our 17 schools were newly constructed within the last four years, and we are currently creating plans for two more new facilities.”

Amid the collapse of Catholic primary and secondary education in the United States, episcopal support has helped lead to two extraordinary success stories: Memphis and Wichita.

Mary McDonald is superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Memphis, and she credits Bishop J. Terry Steib with the growth of schools in the diocese. With his support, she says, “we have increased the number of schools during the past 12 years from 16”—five of which were a year from closing—“to 29. We reopened eight long-closed schools in the inner city to address a population in poverty [and] opened a new high school for 1,000 and a few new elementary schools.”

“I was shocked that our schools were closing,” Bishop Steib said in 2008. “I thought—that’s not the Church’s way. Catholic schools are meant to make a difference in people’s lives. They are the primary vehicle for evangelization.”

In 1998, Bishop Steib hired McDonald to reopen some of the closed schools. The Memphis Commercial-Appeal reported that McDonald’s success followed a brief 1999 meeting with Pope John Paul II, during which she asked him to pray for the Memphis schools. A month later, two Protestant businessmen gave $10 million, allowing for the reopening of several inner-city schools in one of the nation’s most violent urban areas. While the majority of the students in these inner-city schools are non-Catholic, all are required to attend Mass and pray the Rosary weekly, according to the Fordham Institute.

In Wichita, all Catholic primary and secondary schools have been tuition-free for Catholic students since 2002. Msgr. Thomas McGread, a legendary local pastor from 1968 to 1999, challenged his parishioners to donate 5 percent of their income to allow all of the parish’s children to attend the parish school for free. After parishioners obliged, he challenged them to donate 8 percent of their income so that the parish could pay for the Catholic high school tuition of any child in the parish. Again, the parishioners obliged. According to the Fordham Institute, Msgr. McGread’s vision spread throughout the diocese under the leadership of Bishop Eugene Gerber (1982-2001) and Voboril, who has served as superintendent since 1993.

Today, under the leadership of Bishop Michael Jackels, “Catholic schools in the Diocese of Wichita continue to grow because of our parishes’ commitment to fund the Catholic education of parish families without the need to charge tuition at the elementary or secondary levels,” Voboril told CWR. “Because of the tremendous generosity of our parishes to Catholic education and a growing commitment to serving all families regardless of income levels, ethnic background, language capability, or academic ability, our schools are unusually diverse. We have more than 2,600 ethnic minority students…and more than 700 students who come from homes where English is not the primary language.”

“With high unemployment, finances are a challenge,” he added. “However, our greater challenge is to maintain a strong sense of parish involvement in an increasingly secular culture.”

In 1972, President Richard Nixon’s Panel on Nonpublic Education found that the future of Catholic schools was in danger because of “the middle-class exodus from cities; the growing number of low-income students unable to afford tuition; declining church attendance; increasing costs due to aging buildings and expensive staff; rising tuition rates; and constitutional issues regarding direct government aid,” in the summarizing words of a 2008 White House report.

“All, or most, of the statement may be true,” says Memphis’ Mary McDonald. “However, that does not stop us from doing what it takes to provide Catholic education, and to work to make it affordable and accessible for all God’s children. I have heard all the reasons why we are supposed to fail, but we still succeed. Catholic education is worth it, and we must seek continuous improvement in all areas.”

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About J. J. Ziegler 58 Articles
J. J. Ziegler, who holds degrees in classics and sacred theology, writes from North Carolina.