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As home schooling soars in U.S., Catholic schools struggle to recover from pandemic

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CNA Staff, Nov 18, 2023 / 06:00 am (CNA).

As Catholic schools struggle to reach pre-pandemic student enrollment levels, Catholic home education appears to be enjoying a small renaissance, in keeping with trends showing an ongoing spike in home schooling across the U.S.

The Washington Post last month reported that home schooling is by far the “fastest-growing form of education” in the United States, with double-digit increases in home-school enrollment seen in a majority of U.S. states over roughly the past five years.

That increase crosses “every measurable line of politics, geography, and demographics,” the Post said, with the paper estimating “between 1.9 million and 2.7 million home-schooled children in the United States.”

“By comparison,” the paper said, “there are fewer than 1.7 million in Catholic schools, according to the National Catholic Educational Association” (NCEA).

Catholic school enrollment today

Margaret Kaplow, a spokeswoman for the NCEA, told CNA that the organization has “been seeing a two-year uptick in Catholic school enrollment, so we aren’t seeing a drop.” But data from the organization show Catholic schools still falling short of enrollment numbers that existed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kaplow shared the NCEA’s latest data brief, one that stated that “although 60 of the 175 Catholic school dioceses saw an increase of 1.0% or greater in enrollment since 2019-2020, nationwide Catholic school enrollment is still 2.6% lower than pre-pandemic levels.”

The organization’s data show nearly 1.8 million Catholic school students in the 2018-2019 school year, which plummeted to about 1.6 million in the 2020-2021 year amid the start of the COVID-19 crisis, before rebounding slightly to just under 1.7 million this year.

Kaplow said 2023-2024 data, currently gathered from about a third of dioceses, indicate “a less than 1% decrease in enrollment.”

“Without a separate study, we can’t know the reasons for this,” she said, “but [we] likely are seeing a post-COVID shrinkage in enrollment.”

The NCEA’s brief noted that Catholic education enrollment “has varied widely since the pandemic, with Southeast region’s enrollment up 1.7% and Mideast region down 7.5% from 2019-2020.”

Mary Pat Donoghue, the executive director for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Secretariat of Catholic Education, told CNA in a phone interview that Catholic schools “​​have lost enrollment really for the last five or six decades.”

“That has been a long-term trend,” she said. “The pandemic was very devastating, as it was to many, many organizations, especially for schools that were sort of on the margins. So we lost a lot of schools all at once, to the tune of around 6.4% of enrollment.”

The uptick in enrollment after the pandemic, Donoghue said, was due in part to “the fact that Catholic schools prioritized a safe reopening.”

“There was a priority to get kids back on campus and back in class,” she said. “I think that’s why you saw such a strong rebound.”

“We hope it stabilizes,” Donoghue said of enrollment numbers. “I think long-term, what Catholic schools really need to recognize is the important role they play in forming people — children who will then be adults, with a Catholic worldview.”

“I think that’s where our opportunity lies,” she said. “I think we need to dig into our own tradition, our treasury of culture, of art, of scientific discoveries, and work to strengthen that, so that when this generation of kids ages into adulthood they will have a sense of vocation and a sense of calling.”

Catholic home schooling on the rise

The COVID-19 crisis disrupted nearly the entirety of the U.S. education system, with most schools throughout the country shutting down in the early spring of 2020 and reopening with either fully remote or “hybrid” learning setups for many months.

Amid the protracted chaos of closures and reopenings, many families opted for home schooling, which, according to the Post, “remains elevated well above pre-pandemic levels.”

A growing number of families, meanwhile, are opting to take up specifically Catholic home education programs. Everett Buyarski, the academic services director for the Catholic home school organization Kolbe Academy, said the company has seen “an 11% growth in families this year over last year.”

Kolbe offers what it says is an “authentically Catholic, classical home education” program, giving enrollees access to an “orthodox curriculum and faithful faculty and staff.” Buyarski said a review of its recent spike in enrollment indicates “about a quarter of those came to us from Catholic schools.”

“The largest portion are home schoolers choosing to enroll with us who hadn’t previously, about 60%, while 15% came to us from public schools,” he said.

Buyarski said finances are often a “contributing factor” for a family’s decision to take up or leave home schooling, either for families who leave Catholic school to home school or when a home schooling parent has to return to work.

“It can also be the case that families have found that the local Catholic school wasn’t a good fit for their family’s needs, for a variety of reasons,” he said.

“The most common reasons we hear for families leaving public school are due to concerns with what is being taught at the school, or due to bullying or other behavioral/environmental considerations.”

Maureen Whittmann, the co-founder and co-director of the Catholic curriculum provider Homeschool Connections, told CNA that her organization is enjoying a long stretch of growth even after the upheaval of the pandemic cooled off.

“During the pandemic, of course, we saw a huge spike,” she said. “Post-pandemic we expected to see a big drop. We figured people would stay, but many would go back. But we continue to grow. We did not see a drop after the pandemic. Our numbers held steady and we’re continuing to see growth post-pandemic.”

Whittmann said “disenchantment” with both public and, in some cases, Catholic schools is a large part of what’s driving new families to their program.

“Once [families] get into home schooling they’re discovering they really love it,” she said. “They’re drawn into the family life.”

The pandemic, she said, “also made a lot of people realize that they could home school.”

“We saw at the start of the pandemic, parents who had been thinking about home schooling for a while and the pandemic forced them into it and they realized, ‘I can do this!’” she said.

Recovering from the post-pandemic slump

Though enrollment numbers in 2023 were still markedly lower than before the pandemic, Catholic schools still enjoyed a slight recovery in student numbers between the pandemic crash and now.

An EWTN News/RealClear Opinion Research poll of Catholic voters last year suggested that dissatisfaction with several aspects of public education could help explain that bump.

The poll found that 74% of Catholic voters were concerned about children suffering from an educational “COVID deficit” caused by the shift to online learning during the pandemic.

In its data brief, the NCEA pointed out that Catholic schools “have innovated in order to meet the needs of their communities.” Lincoln Snyder, the president and CEO of the NCEA, told CNA earlier this year that Catholic schools “work very hard to stay affordable.”

“I think that parochial schools in general across the country have done a really good job of trying to keep tuition into that range of essentially a car payment,” he said. “I mean, a lot of people are surprised that they can afford a Catholic school.”

Snyder told CNA that Catholic schools “always have to be vigilant in guarding a strong Catholic ethos at the school” and that “protecting that identity always has to be first and foremost for our schools.”

In its latest data brief, meanwhile, the NCEA said Catholic schools must maintain high levels of innovation and support in order to continue their recovery from the post-pandemic slump.

“They will need to continue to support their students and communities in the future to maintain the positive enrollment trend” observed over the past two years, the NCEA said.

Donoghue, meanwhile, said that Catholic schools as an overall institution “are fundamentally strong in this one sense: At a time when there’s been a lot of distrust in institutions, Catholic schools remain very well regarded.”

“This is a great strength,” she said, “and it’s a great credit to the mission-driven people that have led them and staffed them for so long.”

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  1. Home schooling is just but the present iteration of school segregation. The advocates of segregation in schooling after this was lifted by law shifted strategies by promoting home schooling. It is rooted in the same racist worldview.

    • I’m a bit puzzled. I’m familiar with parents choosing Christian schools to avoid integrated public schools but I don’t know a single family who homeschools for that reason.
      Orthodoxy is a equal opportunity incentive for homeschooling. Homeschooling requires real commitment & discipline. There are much easier ways to avoid people with different DNA.

      • I agree, Mrs. C. I teach in a diocesan Catholic school and I can say very honestly that religion is just an add on, and when there are Non-Catholic teachers in some grades, it’s not even Catholic religion. I could write a litany of problems with current Catholic education in way too many Catholic schools. Tradition, orthodoxy and Catholic culture are missing, including the desire and motivation to evangelize. Sometimes those of us who do teach the true Faith can be “invited” to a meeting with the principal and pastor for attempted re-education.if I were a parent, I would choose either homeschooling or good traditional Catholic liberal arts academies, if I could find one.

    • Alicia K. works for the Southern Poverty Law Center or the FBI. Either way, I really applaud her; she’s a genius . . . in her own mind.

      • Yes, I forgot about the FBI infiltration. When that memo first came out people were kidding each other after the TLM about which one of us was an FBI operative in disguise. But at the same time it still makes you feel uneasy. Who knows what other memos didn’t get leaked? I suppose Homeschooling is as good a target as those who attend the TLM.

    • What a ridiculous and calumnious comment. “Integration” of public schools was an issue of the 1960s and 1970s. Catholic schools have always been integrated. And homeschooling has never had anything to do with rejecting integration. You must have missed the part about homeschooling growing among minorities just as fast as among anyone else. I can only guess that you are a public school teacher. No one else could be this oblivious to facts

      • I hear what you’re saying Mr. Williams but that’s actually not been the case historically in the South. And to this day we still have two separate churches-one historically black, one white- in the same parish. Even in little bitty rural parishes like mine.

    • Quite a racist worldview to believe that wanting to protect one’s children from the racist indoctrination and anti-religious bigotry of public education is motivated by the same.

  2. It is very good to see the steady increase in home schooling in the face of the thoroughly illegal and ill-advised shutdown which, after all, seems to have been imposed by some at high levels of government to condition the “little people” to grow accustomed to the boot intended to stamp on our faces. May Holy Church never again truckle under such evil conditioning.

  3. Thanks to the internet and communications technology, it has never been easier to home school. Parents should keep in mind that for whatever subjects they feel they need help with, there are lots of tutors available, many of whom will take several pupils at a time, at a discount. I have been teaching basic Latin to home-schooled children, and love their enthusiasm and their parents’ commitment.

  4. The decades long downward trend in Catholic school enrollment, mentioned by Mary Pat Donoghue, is likely due to them becoming nothing more than Private schools. The faith is not stressed and what us taught is typically wrong, taught by adults that received poor catechesis. The poor quality of catechesis breeds even poorer catechesis. That is the root of what us driving people in my area to home school.

    • You are spot on Frank. Most of the Catholic teachers in the diocesan school I teach at do not even know the Faith, except post Vatican II off the rails versions of it, such as, any student, including Non-Catholic can get in the sanctuary to do the readings at school Masses, we all worship the same “god”, no matter what your religion, pajama days, including to wear to church for school Rosaries, teachers who greet their students with “namaste”, etc. Trying to reason with administration and the pastor doesn’t go to far. It’s either homeschooling or starting Catholic liberal arts academies that hold fast and firm in the Faith and give our children a truly Catholic Culture and vision.

  5. If Catholic school tuition is roughly a car payment… That is still way too expensive–especially when the teachers are not even Catholic!

    Be fruitful, they say. Ok, so we have 5 (almost 6) lovely children. It is silly for me to go work as a public school teacher and turn my entire salary over to the local parochial school.

    We homeschooled before the pandemic, we kept homeschooling during the pandemic, and we plan to homeschool well on into the future.

  6. Alicia K. works for the Southern Poverty Law Center or the FBI. Either way, I really applaud her; she’s a genius . . . in her own mind.

  7. The NCEA is almost as liberal as their secular counterparts, the NEA. In dioceses where they have a strong presence in the administration and among teachers, the schools are generally a disaster. They are about the last people I would ever consult on Catholic education for youth.

  8. There is one concern with home schooling, are the parents qualified as teachers? Who devises the increasingly complex curriculum? We wanted to, with financial difficulties, send our boys to St. John Coleman high in Kingston, NY. Then we heard that Catholic school had closed because of declining enrollment and financial support. That difficult episode was in the late 70s. We had few options, so we sent them to Kingston High. They both graduated with high marks, then in college with honors. They remain Catholics.

    • “There is one concern with home schooling, are the parents qualified as teachers? Who devises the increasingly complex curriculum?”

      Not a concern, really, as the past few years have proven in abundance. Besides, parents who have graduated from HS (never mind college/university) have already taken the courses they are teaching.

      I was asked a similar question many years ago. My basic response was: “I have 18 years of education, a Masters degree, published books, and was a honors student in HS. My wife has a similar background. What, exactly, are we not going to be able to teach, say, our 6-year-old or 12-year-old?”

      • Carl. Your and your wife’s impressive education seems to place you in a unique position to provide home schooling. Then there is us.

        Carolyn and I are college grads with 2 sons. We did not take courses that would place us as home schoolers, especially with continuing more difficult Regents subjects. And, as I asked, ” Who devises the increasingly complex curriculum?” Moreover, because of the current economy and the effort consuming much more daily time, working couples may not have an option. An expensive tutor might be a viable option for some. However, a secular instructor may not teach religious ed.

        God bless

      • MrsHess. My wife and I and our sons are evidence of good schooling from public school teachers. We attended the PTA sessions where teacher performance was a key subject for parents. No matter, every parent should guide their children throughout their education.

        Hope this helps. mD

  9. Part of the reason for the rise in homeschooling–across the board, not just Catholic–is that private and Catholic schools have been suckered into teaching the same “woke” blather as the public schools. Unless and until Catholic schools refuse the same curricula being offered to the public schools, and go with more traditional and sensible curricula, they will not see huge growth. Parents want their children to be taught how to do REAL mathematics, phonics-based spelling, reading of great literature (not the sexualized nonsense being forced on children, even by Scholastic!), and history as it really was, not as the woke mob wishes it were. And children need to be taught the actual Catechism in Catholic schools, not the watered-down drivel offered since post-Vatican II.

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