Politics & Policy

Catholic-School Rescue

What Pope Benedict might do to save urban Catholic education.

Pope Benedict XVI was still in the air over the Atlantic when he addressed the dominant concern on the mind of many Catholics — and certainly the mainstream media: the clergy sex-abuse scandal. “It is a great suffering for the Church in the United States and for the Church in general and for me personally that this could happen,” Benedict said. “It is difficult for me to understand how it was possible that priests betray in this way their mission … to these children.” Here’s hoping that before his Alitalia airliner returns to the Atlantic skies, the Pope addresses another pressing matter for those concerned about America’s children: the decimation of this country’s urban Catholic schools.

As reported in a new study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, over 300,000 students have been affected by Catholic school closures since 1990 — more than twice as many as were displaced by Hurricanes Rita and Katrina. Many of these students now attend inner-city public schools, meaning that a time when our country promises to “leave no child behind,” we’ve watched an exodus of children moving from safe, disciplined institutions to those riddled with violence and disrespect for authority, as exemplified by last week’s student attack on an innocent Baltimore teacher.

This tragedy has been a long-time in the making. To a large degree it’s explained by changing demographics — both the Church’s and the country’s. First, the nuns started to disappear. As Peter Meyer of Education Next reported last year, female religious officials represented 90 percent of parochial school teachers in the 1950s, but account for less than five percent today. Catholic schools now must hire lay teachers instead, at great expense, pushing tuition beyond the reach of many middle class families, and certainly beyond the reach of the low-income families that live near many of the remaining inner-city Catholic schools.

That brings us to the second big demographic change: The Italians and Poles and Irish who once lived in the city and wanted their children to get a parochial education have decamped to the suburbs. The slow decline of so many urban parishes – and so many parish schools – is the result. But time and again the Church renewed its commitment to keep these schools open anyway to serve the poor children who now live in these communities. And many studies have shown that the schools serve these children well.

Thus, America still finds itself with hundreds of Catholic schools in its inner cities, where they mainly serve poor non-Catholics, particularly African-Americans. Now, however, the Church is saying that it can no longer afford to foot the growing bill. (And here’s where the connection to the sex-abuse scandal comes in: dioceses bankrupt by lawsuits are incapable of subsidizing these schools.)

Further decline is hardly inescapable. There are glimmers of hope from communities around the country that are reversing the tide. In Wichita, the diocese has made Catholic schools free for all Catholics by asking parishioners to tithe a significant portion of their salaries. In Memphis, the effectiveness of the “Jubilee Schools” has attracted investment from philanthropists. And first in Chicago, and now around the country, the success of Cristo Rey and NativityMiguel schools has illustrated the growth potential of networks of independent Catholic schools — the charter schools of the Catholic school world.

Yet American Catholics — and Americans more generally — need some prodding if they are to get excited about rescuing these schools. In a public opinion survey included as part of the Fordham study, both groups put “increasing funding and commitment to inner-city Catholic elementary and high schools” below disaster relief, poverty reduction, and health care on the list of social priorities the Church should embrace.

That’s where Benedict comes in. The Holy Father meets with Catholic educators on Thursday; he has an opportunity to call for a massive campaign to rescue inner-city Catholic schools. Part of his message should be to parishioners to reach into their pocketbooks and help out, but policymakers should be part of the mix, too. Parochial schools that serve mostly non-Catholics are performing a vital public service as it is; it’s time they received public funding. It’s hard to repent for the sins of the sex abuse scandal, but it’s not too late to reverse the human misery caused by the shuttering of Catholic schools.

Michael J. Petrilli is a vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which released Who Will Save America’s Urban Catholic Schools? last week. He is also a contributor to the Flypaper blog, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and an executive editor of Education Next.

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