Revivifying Catholic Education in the Era of School Choice

Catholic Schools in Crisis

Long before coronavirus was a household name, our country’s Catholic school system was already in a state of emergency. Fifty years past its peak size, Catholic education was suffering an enrollment crisis and school closures en masse. Meanwhile, paradoxically, our country’s need for vibrant and engaged Catholic schools had never seemed greater. Parents were growing wary of traditional public and charter schools for a variety of reasons—some cultural, some academic—and the sentiment was reaching critical mass.

And then, disaster struck. The Covid-19 pandemic has, in many ways, exacerbated the crisis Catholic schools were facing before coronavirus reached our shores; to date, 98 Catholic schools in the U.S. have announced permanent closure in response to enrollment and tuition declines driven by Covid-19’s economic toll. But at the same time, it has also deepened our nation’s need for Catholic schools—perhaps even serving as a Hail Mary pass for the sector’s revitalization, right at the pivotal moment.

Coronavirus has offered parents and policymakers alike an opportunity to see the advantages of the type of mission-driven, community-oriented pedagogy that Catholic education has always sought to provide. With a sense of religious mission, organizational flexibility, and a strong commitment to traditional core values grounded in eternal faith, many Catholic schools have been able to react nimbly to the turbulence the past few months have introduced to the task of educating America’s schoolchildren (schools run by the Meribah province of Marianists on Long Island serve as just one powerful example). And families of all backgrounds are taking note.

If Catholic schools are to seize this moment—and capitalize on the current enrollment opportunity—so that they can continue to be a beacon of hope and inspiration for families of all financial backgrounds (especially lower-income families, for whom Catholic education is a consistent boon), the sector needs to act quickly to optimize its operational structure and avoid pitfalls to which it was on the verge of succumbing before the virus struck.

The future of Catholic education depends on the extent to which families will embrace Catholic education as an alternative to shortcomings they perceive in the public and charter sector. And it depends, too, on the ability of the Catholic school system to respond to the new demand this could spark. If Catholic schools are to provide families with a viable alternative in the future, they can and should remain steadfast in their values—but their operations will need to change.

The historic model of individual parish schools—under the control of their parish priest on the most local level and a diocesan education office at large—is not suited to the current or future educational environment. The most promising efforts within the Catholic school sector today involve reliance on some type of intermediary back-office organization, staffed by education experts and professionals, and dedicated to both the improvement and growth of a reasonably sized network of Catholic schools. Current and future efforts in this direction will look different across the country. Some will be led by dedicated laypeople, others by members of religious orders. Some may leverage tuition tax credits or vouchers in states where those options are available, others will rely on philanthropic dollars. The challenge to the traditional Church hierarchy will be to ensure that whatever arrangements emerge, they are consistent with the core values of the Church and its educational philosophy while accepting that this moment requires a new way of thinking around issues of management and day-to-day operation of the schools.

Failure to adapt will lead to more of the same. A recent report for the Manhattan Institute (compiled pre-coronavirus) looked at enrollment and demographic patterns in New York City and State’s public, charter, private, and religious schools from the past twenty years. It found, happily, that private-sector schools remain vibrant in the Empire State with over 440,000 students enrolled. That is ten percent of the students in the state, about the same as the national average. In New York City, the private sector occupies a much larger share of students: 19 percent. The bad news, however, is that despite solid private school enrollment, enrollment in Catholic schools statewide is half of what it was in 2001, a loss of about 144,000 students. And these types of trends are consistent across the country.

The report shows that we cannot surmise that declines in Catholic school enrollment reflect a broader turn away from private or religious schools. On the contrary, the decline in Catholic schools has been somewhat offset, in New York at least, by a huge increase in enrollment in Jewish schools and Yeshivas, which are up by more than 65,000 students in those same years. That growth has occurred in the most orthodox Jewish communities in the city and state, and it demonstrates enduring belief in religious education on the part of Jewish families.

We believe many families from diverse religious traditions, beyond just Judaism, still share this belief in religious education. Even within the Catholic community, as families began sending their children to public rather than Catholic schools over a long period of time, they still enrolled their children in parish-based religious education programs, called CCD or Catechism class. These programs grew as Catholic school enrollment shrank. Indeed, most Catholic adults in the U.S. today likely received their religious instruction and preparation for first sacraments in these programs conducted outside of school hours. This demonstrates that while families stopped seeing the value in Catholic schools, they were still invested in their children’s religious education.

Catholic schools themselves, however, were intended not to provide Catholic education as an ancillary pursuit squeezed in between after-school soccer practices and ballet classes, but to infuse Catholic teaching and values into the entire academic curriculum. While there is no “Catholic way” to teach math, strong Catholic education, across all disciplines, can be approached in such a way that it informs children about their faith, by reflecting beauty, order, and natural law.

And besides, all education, public and private, is values-based, even if some public-school proponents argue that their schools are values-neutral. This is not true (what they tout as “values-neutral” often materializes as vague relativism), nor is the values debate limited to hot-button social and cultural issues. Schools are in the business of forming young adults, and the best schools do this intentionally, with an eye toward the whole person. Within a Catholic school, such an intentional reliance on values is the default mode. With the Supreme Court’s decision in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru this summer, which made clear the ministerial exception that religious institutions have regarding employment decisions, the ability of Catholic and other religious schools to abide by their values has only been made stronger.

Values and Metrics in America’s Schools

Children come to school with different backgrounds and abilities. The best religious schools have a vision of the worth of each human life that guides their response to these differences, allowing them to hold children to high standards while also affirming their dignity and unique gifts. Public and charter schools, on the other hand, are beholden to technocratic and bureaucratic approaches, through no fault of their own. The political system demands that in return for public funding, these schools demonstrate their worth through measurable outcomes such as standardized test scores and graduation rates, and such mandates can sometimes lead to an overemphasis on metrics and a de-emphasis on students as unique individuals with their own strengths and weaknesses. At various times in recent history, policymakers have even required public schools to retain students in their current grades if they fail to meet a certain performance standard, against the recommendations of that student’s teachers and administrators. Metrics replace professional discretion and schools are denied the ability to consider the child holistically.

Kathleen Porter-Magee wrote about this in a recent Manhattan Institute report. She said, “there is not yet strong evidence that this relentless focus on raising an individual’s test score yields the long-term life outcomes that education reformers strive for.” Her report describes the success she had building a network of inner-city Catholic schools (more on that later) and addresses the shortfalls of an education system overly reliant on metrics yet shortsighted on students’ long-term outcomes.

To be sure, there are important discussions to be had about metrics and about the assessment of all school efforts. But one’s judgment of a school’s efforts will depend on one’s values. A debate is emerging in our country surrounding not only the question of metrics but also of the values inherent in our schools. This is a good conversation to be having, but a one-size-fits-all approach, which the politics around public schools is likely to deliver, will alienate many parents. We have already seen evidence of this across the country as parents come to terms with the lack of influence they have over the content disseminated in public schools. As this continues to play out, one wonders if more families might feel the lure of religious education of their own tradition, however dormant their own faith lives may be.

The values inherent to Catholic schools run counter to those found in public and charter schools. While public schools may claim to be values-neutral, Catholic schools tend to embrace values as part of their raison d’etre. In her report, Porter-Magee identifies three ingredients to the value systems of Catholic schools that contribute to their success. She writes that successful Catholic schools emphasize the objectivity of truth, that they instill habits of virtue on the basis that doing good fosters happiness, and they operate under the understanding that students are created in God’s image. Nota bene: each of these ingredients is important but the last one particularly runs counter to an overemphasis on test scores and graduation rates. Such metrics are woefully ill-equipped to capture a child’s worth and dignity as a beloved child of God, created in His image.

As public and charter schools continue to alienate parents based on their content, their over-reliance on measurable outcomes, or a combination of the two, interest in Catholic education, which has a long track record of fostering educational and holistic success, stands likely to increase. The traditional parochial school system, however, which served the Church so well for much of the twentieth century, is not positioned to respond to any emerging growth of interest in faith-based education among young Catholic families. To understand this challenge, it is worth understanding how and why Catholic education originally rose to prominence in the U.S. in the first place.

A History of Catholic Schools in America

The history of Catholic education in the United States is long, honorable, and inspiring, but the schools that many of us remember and loved sprang from a different Church fighting to survive in a different dominant culture. The Catholic school system of the past did not just happen; it grew because of the determination of many of the American Bishops of the early twentieth century to provide Catholic schooling to their flock. Faced with a political culture that was hostile to papist immigrants and finding that existing public schools favored a brand of Christianity that was hostile to Roman Catholicism, these big-city Bishops built the largest alternative school system that the country has ever known. An early goal was to require all Catholic families in America to send their children to the Church-run schools, though that goal was never close to being achieved. Still, the institutional framework for a large system of schools materialized robustly; orders of women religious grew to staff the schools, and Catholic colleges were tasked with preparing these young women as teachers. Buildings were constructed to house the schools, and Diocesan Offices of Education were established to oversee them.

Nativists took note of this perceived resistance to Americanization and by the 1880s many states passed Blaine Amendments, inserting prohibitions against the use of public tax money in religious schools. The Catholic Church was strong, however, and its adherents were loyal. Through the first half of the 20th century, this school system grew tremendously across the country, particularly during the post-World War II baby boom. National enrollment peaked in 1961 when nearly one in eight elementary school students in the country were enrolled in Catholic schools. 

All of that began to change in the mid-to-late 1960s, as the children and grandchildren of the immigrant generation moved to the suburbs, away from the established parishes and ethnic neighborhoods of the cities.  The 1970s saw a good portion of the Catholic population settle into the suburbs, with their new and well-regarded public schools. As a general assimilation to the dominant secular culture took hold, the need for Catholic education seemed to wane in importance. In many dioceses, the church did not repeat its earlier campaign to build schools and the institutions needed to support them. Vocations dipped as well and those Catholic schools that remained needed to charge tuition to pay their expenses, including modest salaries for lay teachers. Still, many of these schools faced financial stress and lived on a year-to-year existence.

All the reasons behind the decline in enrollment raise questions about the very ability of individual parishes to continue to be the locus of control for Catholic schools. Beyond school issues, many parishes are short of staff and the pastor’s time is over-scheduled. In most parishes, the Catechism program serves most students, perhaps reducing the will of parishioners to financially support the Catholic schools serving so few of their children. Finally, our economy demands and parents expect more of their schools, whether public, charter, or private. In addition to keeping the doors open, all schools must engage in sustained efforts to improve the quality of their program and their staff. This costs money and it cannot be done as an ancillary effort; it must be built into the DNA of the school. 

Catholic School Networks: Models of Success

Public and Charter schools have pioneered the use of school networks, school systems which are typically smaller than a district but larger than a single school. The success of these efforts may point a way for Catholic schools to proceed. Indeed, some examples already exist within the Catholic school system.

As they are nationwide, the current enrollment numbers for Catholic schools in New York are bleak. But within the decline, there are emerging areas of hope. The rate of decline in Catholic high schools has been much lower than it has been among elementary schools, for example. Where the local parish had been the cornerstone of the Catholic school system of the past, there might be an emerging place for high schools to serve that function in the future, following in the lead that small networks have established. Many of these networks (which run elementary schools, high schools, or both) were founded by religious communities of sisters, brothers, or priests, independent of their local diocese. Some remain under provincial control, but others have made a transition to lay leadership. Those with strong finances and a strong alumni base might be able to serve as anchor institutions, fostering growth of more Catholic schools within the network.

One of us, Domanico, is familiar with a high school that is part of the largest of these networks in New York, Kellenberg Memorial High School in the Diocese of Rockville Center, having sent his children there in the 2000s. The Marianist Province of Meribah, a community of priests and brothers, had been a presence in suburban Long Island since their establishment of Chaminade High School for boys in 1930. In 1987, they took ownership of a building that had housed a closing diocesan high school and established the co-educational Kellenberg Memorial. At the same time, they established a middle school program in grades 6-8 in one wing of that school. Growth continued in 2004, when they took over a local parochial elementary school that was closing due to extremely low enrollment. That school, the St. Martin de Porres Marianist School, now thrives in an economically and racially diverse community.

These Marianist schools now serve 4,700 students and all but Chaminade were established as the diocese was shrinking its own school system. The key to the Marianist effort is that they started from a strong base with their original school and strong alumni base and grew slowly but deliberately from there. Expansion did not bulldoze ahead of, or come at the cost of, the hard work of getting each new institution well established before moving on to the next. 

Very recently, the local Bishop has asked the Meribah Marianists to co-lead a diocesan-wide effort to conduct a comprehensive review of the Diocese’s elementary schools. In announcing the Morning Star Initiative, Bishop John Barres emphasized the four pillars of the project: “A Robustly Catholic Culture centered on the spiritual, intellectual, sacramental, moral and liturgical life of the Church; Safe and Supportive Communities recognizing the dignity and potential of everyone; Academic Excellence built on a Catholic Faith-based model of individual growth and development; and that we are Here to Stay to meet the changing needs of the community, and to ensure sufficient resources for an improved educational environment and the financial stability of the schools.”

Another group that is working hard and deliberately to re-make Catholic education in New York is the Archdiocesan Partnership Network, led by Kathleen Porter-Magee, and described in the report previously mentioned. With the support of Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Partnership Network is a private school management organization, founded by laypeople, serving seven Catholic elementary schools in Harlem and the South Bronx sections of New York City. The network has centralized back-office operations for the schools and engages in rigorous professional development and ongoing and effective efforts to strengthen instruction within a strong grounding of content, character, and faith. Porter-Magee’s schools are an important example of lay leaders, supported by generous donors, charting a new and sustainable path forward for Catholic education, while providing solid academic enrichment for students from under-served families, and remaining true to the Church’s teachings.

Similar network-based efforts to revitalize Catholic schooling exist outside of New York, too. The Chesterton Schools Network, for example, presents an interesting case study. The first Chesterton Academy was founded in the suburbs of Minneapolis, Minnesota, by two laymen, Dale Ahlquist (president of the Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton) and Tom Bengtson, who sought alternative options to the existing Catholic high schools in their area for their children. Specifically, they sought a classical, integrated high school education that was rooted in the Western canon, faithful to Church teaching, affordable to families of average means, and reflective of John Paull II’s call to create a “culture of life.” So they started one themselves.

As students at that first Chesterton Academy in Minneapolis were busy performing Shakespeare plays and reciting speeches in Latin, the success of the school caught the attention of other similarly-minded parents across the country and the world, who were eager to replicate the model in their own communities. So, in 2013, Chesterton Academy and the Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton formally established the “Chesterton Schools Network,” empowering parents in other localities to start schools drawing from the original Chesterton Academy’s curriculum and approach. Today there are 18 schools operating in the Chesterton Schools Network in the U.S., Canada, and Italy (including two in New York state). The Network expects to expand to more than 25 schools during the 2020-21 academic year.

The Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE), founded at the University of Notre Dame in 1993, presents another alternative approach to revitalizing Catholic education. The program began not as a network of schools, but as a network of teachers (or “Teaching Fellows”), who are trained through ACE’s innovative instructional model at Notre Dame’s campus during the summers, and then deployed to serve for two years in under-resourced Catholic schools around the country, oftentimes in low-income and bilingual immigrant communities. The program’s cohort of Teaching Fellows draws from recent college graduates, capitalizing on their talent, mobility, and expertise in the subjects in which they’ve majored. After forming the pedagogical and catechetical skills of the Teaching Fellows during the summer, ACE sends them to schools in places like Mobile, Alabama and Mission, Texas. At the end of the program, teachers earn a master’s degree in education, and Catholic schools profit from having engaged the fresh talent and energy of youthful, passionate teachers. Since 1993, ACE has graduated 1,858 teachers, 64 percent of whom chose to remain in Catholic education upon graduation.

In the U.S., about 180 ACE Teaching Fellows serve about 130 schools in 34 communities annually across the country. ACE’s model has also been replicated across the country at places like the University of Portland, which is home to PACE, the Pacific Alliance for Catholic Education. And ACE now operates a second master’s program, the Remick Leadership Program, that trains principals and administrators. Through this program, ACE has graduated 381 school leaders, 100 percent of whom stay in Catholic education upon graduation. In addition, ACE works in partnership with dioceses and archdiocese across the country to manage a network of Catholic schools in places like Indianapolis, Indiana, and Palm Beach, Florida.

The Cristo Rey Network is another example of successful Catholic high schools presenting alternative education options. Like ACE, Cristo Rey materialized as a response to the growing need for Catholic schools to serve low-income, immigrant communities, just as they had done in the 19th century through efforts from saints like Elizabeth Ann Seton and Katharine Drexel. The program started with a single school, Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, founded in Chicago in 1996 with the goal of preparing underserved, low-income students for college. To subsidize the program, the school developed the Corporate Work-Study Program (CWSP), partnering with local businesses to form a work-study approach that would enable students to gain professional skills and finance their private-school educations.

In 1998, Father John P. Foley, S.J., who was serving as the Founding President of Cristo Rey Jesuit High School at the time, challenged the U.S. Christian Brothers at their annual education conference to replicate the model that the Chicago Cristo Rey high school had initiated to form new schools across the country. This call eventually led to the formation of the Cristo Rey Network in 2000, with the Christian Brothers helping to open De La Salle North Catholic High School, a Cristo Rey high school in Portland, Oregon. Today there are more than 30 Cristo Rey schools serving students across the country, in places like Columbus, Ohio, and Denver, Colorado, with a collection of future schools currently in development. In 2014, a study from the Lexington Institute called Cristo Rey schools “one of the nation’s most powerful urban education success stories.”

Beside the Cristo Rey Network, Chicago is, as of very recently, home to another network of Catholic schools: those being funded and operated by a partnership between the Archdiocese of Chicago and a local nonprofit organization, the Big Shoulders Fund. In a joint press release from January 2020, the Big Shoulders Fund, which was already involved in philanthropic efforts to support Chicago’s Catholic schools, announced with the Archdioceses of Chicago that it would assume a 51 percent financial stake in 30 of Chicago’s Catholic schools, mostly in under-resourced neighborhoods. Along with donating $47.5 million to these schools over a period of ten years, the group will “increase its operating support and programmatic investments while also assuming a leadership role in helping school principals to manage toward a vibrant future.”

This development in Chicago follows on the heels of Illinois passing the Invest in Kids Act in 2017, which offers a 75 percent income tax credit to individuals and businesses that contribute to qualified Scholarship Granting Organizations (SGOs), of which the Big Shoulders Fund is one. The SGOs then provide students with scholarships to private schools based on the students’ family income. Following in the footsteps of the partnership between the Big Shoulders Fund and the Archdiocese of Chicago, scholarship organizations in states where tuition tax credit programs exist should seek to build new structures to support, maintain, and grow Catholic schools.

Paving a Future for Catholic Schools

The previous examples testify to the commitment Catholic education has always fostered to families in a variety of economic and social conditions, including middle-class, lower-income, and immigrant families. But it is worth addressing upper-class families as well. An emphasis on the least resourced among us is vital, but Catholic schools will not survive if they only serve the poor and remain reliant on the infusion of philanthropic dollars. Indeed, one can argue that the Catholic school system will survive to serve the poor only if it engages a parallel effort of outreach to higher-income families.

In this regard, the opportunity to attract upper-middle and high-income families to Catholic education has perhaps never been greater—particularly because of growing hostility to the academic goals of these families in large cities and school districts. In Manhattan, for example, rhetoric from political figures casts virtues of merit and high achievement not as worthy objectives after which students should strive, but as signals of privilege. But such attitudes are as alienating for higher-income families as they are for the low-income Asian families who have most vocally denounced them. As higher-income parents contend with the feelings of estrangement and bewilderment that such denigration of merit can foster, Catholic educators could position themselves as an alternative option—one where their children would be welcome and challenged—by doing what they do best: emphasizing their commitment to cultivating all children, regardless of socioeconomic status.

If Catholic schools are to survive, they need to broaden their constituency with schools for families of means. This would bring social capital as well as financial capital to the effort and would help to grow a new generation of alumni who will have the ability as adults to give back and to do what they can to support Catholic education. 

Efforts to maintain and improve Catholic education will look different across the country depending on local resources and talent, but either way, innovation is necessary; with a 49 percent drop in Catholic school attendance in New York and similar declines elsewhere, nostalgia alone will not get the job done. Neither will pessimism about the inevitable continued decline of Catholic education. Though the efforts will look different they will be similar in important ways: the rejection of pessimism and the embrace of a vision for improvement and growth; the willingness to do things differently; and the ability to imagine a place for Catholic education in the country’s larger educational sector.

The world remains a difficult and challenging place to raise a family; there will always be a thirst for academically strong, values- and faith-based education once families see its effectiveness and vibrancy in action. With the continued support of generous donors and perhaps the opening of the public purse by the Supreme Court, the way may be made easier, but more will be necessary. If the Catholic school system is to survive in any meaningful way, an intentional effort to build groups of schools that are strong in the faith and educationally and fiscally sound is necessary. The diocesan structure did its job more than 100 years ago. Now, the Catholic schools for the next century will need to grow out of the efforts of the whole Church, the families and larger laity as well as those in religious life, within new structures that embrace and ensure the strong Catholic identity of Catholic schools.

Featured Image: Meliacin Master, Woman (geometry personified?) teaching geometry, 1309; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Ray Domanico and Nora Kenney

Ray Domanico is the Director of Education Policy at the Manhattan Institute and author of the new report, “A Statistical Profile of New York’s K-12 Educational Sector: Race, Income and Religion.”

Nora Kenney (UND ’12, ‘17) is Senior Press Officer at the Manhattan Institute.

Read more by Ray Domanico and Nora Kenney

Who Is the Priest We Want?

John Cavadini on the priestly vocation of being set apart for one's parish.

1100px Giuseppe Molteni Confession 1838