April 14, 2008
Difficult Times for Catholic Educators
Parishioners themselves may need to foot the bill to keep religious teaching in the classroom.
As media outlets zoom in on Pope Benedict's U.S. visit and its implications for the Catholic church's future in America, a more sobering story is unfolding regarding the state of Catholic education. Last Thursday the Fordham Foundation released the statistic that the shuttering of 1,300 Catholic elementary and high schools has displaced more than 300,000 children and adolescents since 1990. The National Catholic Educators Association reports downward trends as well: About 1,267 Catholic schools have closed since 2000 and enrollment nationwide has dropped by 14 percent. In 1960 there were 13,000 Catholic schools in America; now there are 7,500.
Leaders at the Fordham Foundation, an education-reform think tank, hope that this downward trend will be one of the topics touched on in Pope Benedict XVI's speech at the Catholic University of America this Thursday, though the meeting will center on higher education. It will also be a topic addressed at the White House's summit on religious schools and inner cities on April 24.
Schools facing the harshest financial realities are in urban locations. As many Catholic families have left cities for the suburbs over the last 30 years, inner-city schools have lost their primary financial support. And as fewer people are interested in the priesthood - which traditionally comprised schools' teaching staff - schools have been forced to hire outside the fold, requiring higher teachers' salaries and thus higher tuition costs. Low-income families simply cannot afford tuition, and opt to send children to more affordable public schools. The financial bind keeps the Catholic church from realizing one of its longstanding missions: to provide quality education to those who can't afford it and to those outside the church's walls.
As the AP story rightly notes, as many of these Catholic schools either close or convert to publicly funded charter schools, they lose their chance to provide children an education in the faith. Some have suggested that Catholic parishioners help foot the bill to keep distinctly Christian teaching and practices in the classroom. Only time will tell if laypeople are able and willing to provide the $19.8 billion that Catholic schools end up saving the federal government each year.