In Need of Salvation
On preserving faith-based urban schools.


Chester E. Finn Jr.

Back in April, a trinity of events called attention to the worsening plight of America’s faith-based urban schools: Pope Benedict’s visit, particularly his Catholic University address; the White House Summit on Inner-City Children and Faith-based Schools; and, of course, the Fordham Institute’s stellar publication, edited by Scott Hamilton, Who Will Save American’s Urban Catholic Schools?.

All three pointed to a lamentable yet paradoxical situation: even as the United States properly obsesses over the weak academic achievement of poor and minority youngsters residing in our inner cities, hundreds of low-cost, high-performance inner-city schools have been closing. And all three, in their very different ways, suggested remedies for that situation.

Six months later, the White House Domestic Policy Council has brought forth a first-rate treatise on this same topic: Preserving a Critical National Asset: America’s Disadvantaged Students and the Crisis in Faith-based Urban Schools. It’s not just thorough, well-documented, literate, and long (160 pages, though more than half of that bulk consists of edited transcripts of the April summit); it’s astute, thoughtful, and in some respects gutsy. Well worth the time, in other words, of anyone with an interest in educating poor kids or the fate of parochial schools.

In a sad sort of way, though, I feel like I’m coming full circle. Preserving repeatedly cites and quotes the 1972 report of the President’s Panel on Nonpublic Education, established by Nixon in 1970 at the behest of my boss, Pat Moynihan, and initially staffed by me, in my very first grown-up job, assisting Moynihan and John Ehrlichman with White House education policy.

Unfortunately, the lesson to be drawn 36 years later is that the country pretty much ignored the 1972 warning that U.S. private schools were faltering and would close in large numbers unless bold steps were taken to reverse that sorry pattern.

A third of a century later, though, private school enrollment is still about 11 percent of the K-12 total (versus 13 percent at the time of the earlier report). The urban faith-based sector (especially but not exclusively Catholic) has declined sharply.