One of the notable events of Pope Benedict’s recent visit to the United States was his address to Catholic educators. While he focused most of his comments on the role of the Catholic University, he did not forget to remind us of the need to recommit to our Catholic elementary and secondary schools, “especially those in poorer areas.” And as President Bush is set to convene a summit on inner-city children and faith-based schools this week, it is worth reflecting on the decimation of America’s urban Catholic primary and secondary schools and what can be done about it.
A new study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute — a smart, highly regarded education think tank — estimates that 300,000 students have been displaced due to Catholic-school closings since 1990, and that taxpayers have spent upwards of $20 billion to pay for public schooling for these students whose Catholic schools have vanished. Most of those kids are poor and needy, the very youngsters whose futures are most precarious and whose educational attainment is the focus of most school-reform efforts of the past quarter century. (“A Nation At Risk” appeared 25 years ago this month.) Far too many of them were forced to move from good Catholic schools to mediocre (or worse) public schools. If the trend continues, hundreds of thousands more will soon follow in their unhappy wake.
That’s bad for them and bad for America. I take it personally, too. As the product of a Catholic education and the father of two boys who attended Catholic schools from kindergarten through high school, this situation is particularly painful.
Today’s urban Catholic schools are a legacy of a time when immigrant Catholics lived in our cities and wanted their children to get a parochial education. Most of these families left for the suburbs in the 1960s and 70s. This posed a massive threat to many urban parishes — and their schools, which have been losing enrollment ever since. Yet time and again the Church renewed its commitment and strived to keep these schools open to serve the poor children who still lived nearby. And study after study shows that the schools have served these children well.
Now new immigrants fill our cities — including many Catholic Hispanics. But rising tuitions are putting parochial schools out of their reach. With almost no nuns or brothers left to work in these schools for free, Catholic schools must pay lay teachers and administrators decent salaries, making the schools dramatically more expensive.
Yet those expenses don’t have to be passed along in the form of higher tuition. Consider Wichita. There the archdiocese promulgated a simple principle: Catholic schooling would be free to all parishioners. To make the economics work, the bishop asked all Church members to tithe from their salaries, money that went largely into school operations. Parishioners responded willingly. Today, all Wichita Catholics can send their children to parochial school; tuition is no barrier.
What about other communities? According to the Fordham study, Catholics love their schools — 88 percent view them favorably and most crave the values of a Catholic education for their own children. They should. But, yes, the one sensitive question is whether assimilated, middle-class, suburban Catholics will be willing to support the education of Hispanic kids living in the inner city.
Wichita suggests that when they’re asked by a committed and persuasive Church leader, Catholics will open their pocketbooks to support Catholic schools. Ultimately, it is the religious mission of these schools that motivates parishioners to tithe. Fordham’s survey found that the attribute Catholics most associate with Catholic parochial schools is “developing moral values and discipline.” And they’re right about that. In addition to the solid academic and athletic programs in these schools, that’s why we sent our boys to them.
The president should call on educators and the faith-based community to embrace the Wichita model. And, Catholic parishioners should be asked to help pay for parochial education for all Catholic families who want it — rich and poor alike.
As for the education of non-Catholic kids in parochial schools, if we do not push hard for more of that, it will keep withering as well. Stemming that decline, especially in America’s inner cities, is a great social justice issue for our time. Study after study shows that poor and minority children nationwide are well served by these schools — and in the long run, so is the Catholic Church and the American polity. Since these schools are already serving a “public” mission, they deserve public funding — preferably via vouchers — so they can keep their lights on and continue doing their essential work.
I hope the upcoming summit recognizes and addresses this need — and helps American taxpayers and policymakers recognize it as well. Anyone interested in education reform, inner-city reform, and the fate of our youth — ideally, all of America — needs to recognize the national treasure that is being lost before it’s too late.
– William J. Bennett is the Washington fellow of the Claremont Institute and the former U.S. secretary of Education.