Politics & Policy

Why We Need to Save the Catholic Schools

They excel academically and are especially good at educating disadvantaged children.

Communities — cities — need Catholic schools. Why? What is to be done in an environment when the closing of Catholic elementary and secondary schools have big cities and small towns alike? In their book Lost Classroom, Lost Community: Catholic Schools’ Importance in Urban America, Margaret F. Brinig and Nicole Garnett document the importance of the schools and the damage done by their disappearance. It’s a sobering, encouraging, and challenging read.


Kathryn Jean Lopez: What are the chief ways a neighborhood suffers when a school disappears? 

Margaret F. Brinig: When a Catholic school closes, entire neighborhoods suffer. That is, we found that the negative effects of school closures are experienced not just by the members of a school community. What we can demonstrate statistically is that after a Catholic school closes, the “social capital” — the web of connections and trust between people — in the neighborhood declines. People are less likely to feel that their neighbors will help them shovel if it snows, keep an eye on children playing outside, unite for a community project, and so forth.

When they are less likely to feel trust and bonding to one another, eventually other bad things start to happen, too — there are more signs of disorder, like cigarette butts or broken bottles on the sidewalk or in the streets, more groups loitering on street corners, more prostitution, and so forth. Ultimately there’s more crime. Although we study a time when crime was declining across the U.S., we found that crime declines more slowly in neighborhoods, in Chicago and in Philadelphia, that lost Catholic schools. Between 1995 and 2005 in Chicago, serious crime declined 25 percent citywide but only 17 percent in police beats that lost Catholic schools.

We also demonstrate that all this deterioration is independent of the changes in the wealth or the racial or ethnic composition of the neighborhood. We found, in fact, that all urban Catholic schools are struggling financially but that the factor determining whether they close is whether they have strong and supportive leadership from the pastor. The leadership in the parish is more predictive of school closures than demographics.


Lopez: You point out that “it is important not to ignore the fact that one consequence of Catholic school closures is the gradual disappearance of high-performing, relatively affordable, educational options for urban neighborhoods.” And that’s not entirely because of self-selection?

Garnett: The social-science evidence supporting the conclusion that Catholic schools excel academically, especially at educating disadvantaged children, is overwhelming. This evidence also strongly suggests that these effects are not solely the result of self-selection. On the contrary, beginning with the groundbreaking work of James Coleman, Fr. Andrew Greeley, and Anthony Bryk, social scientists have demonstrated repeatedly that the benefits of Catholic schools are greatest for the most disadvantaged kids.


Lopez: The book states that “Catholic elementary schools are important generators of social capital in urban neighborhoods.” How so? Is it deliberate?

Brinig: In addition to the negative consequences of closing Catholic schools, we also found that open Catholic schools have very positive effects on neighborhoods. In Chicago and Philadelphia, open Catholic schools, holding demographics constant, are associated with a good deal less crime in the neighborhoods. We cannot say exactly why this occurs, but we have strong hunches. First, in these cities, the schools have been anchors of their communities for years, with longstanding ties to generations of students, their families. It’s hardly a surprise, therefore, that neighborhoods depend on these institutions, which have built and continue to build trust. Originally the parishes and schools were created to serve poor, largely immigrant communities from Europe, and they continue to do the same type of work with poor communities, though these look different demographically today, and may not even be Catholic.

We also suspect that Catholic schools are good community institutions for the same reason that they are good schools. The research on Catholic schools finds that they succeed academically because the members of the school community — pastors, principals, teachers, parents, students — trust each other and hold each other to high expectations. In other words, Catholic schools are high-social-capital institutions. This social capital has positive effects beyond the four walls of the schools. We also think that Catholic schools may foster hope in the future, with their success being a sign that success is possible even in the most struggling communities. Their closure may send the opposite signal: Closing Catholic schools may dishearten and demoralize community members. A closed Catholic school may be, to borrow a term from criminology, a “broken window” that triggers a decline toward disorder and crime.


Lopez: Do we know that these effects are limited to Catholic schools? What about charter schools?

Brinig: Our research in Chicago and Philadelphia found that charter schools did not have the same positive effect, although our data on charter schools was limited. While we cannot make the same causal claims we do for Catholic schools — since we do not see a clear pattern for why they opened where they did, as we do for why the Catholic schools either remain open or close — we did not find lower crime rates in those Chicago and Philadelphia neighborhoods that boast charter schools as we did for Catholic schools.


Lopez: Why do you encourage policymakers to imagine cities without Catholic schools?

Brinig: As we discuss in our book, the loss of Catholic schools is a “triple whammy” for our cities: When Catholic schools close, (1) poor kids lose schools with a track record of educating disadvantaged children at a time when they need them more desperately than ever; (2) poor neighborhoods that are already overwhelmed by disorder and crime lose critical and stabilizing community institutions — institutions that our research suggests suppress crime and disorder; and, (3) middle-class families must look elsewhere for educational options for their kids, leading many to migrate to suburbs with high-performing public schools. These realities should inform both urban and education policy, because public policy — especially the limited access to public funds for kids attending non-public schools — is one reason that Catholic schools are closing.


Lopez: Is there an upside to the situation Catholic schools find themselves in? An opportunity for rebuilding and renewal, a new seriousness?

Garnett: Most crises can present opportunities. The situation facing Catholic schools is no exception. In the last two decades, approximate 2,000 schools have closed, most of them in urban neighborhoods. But we hope and believe that the tide may be turning. Across the country there are not just glimmers but beacons of hope. Many bishops are publicly recommitting themselves to Catholic schools. A few examples of many: Cardinal Dolan has spoken of a need to overcome the “hospice mentality” that has gripped the Catholic-school world for too long. On Tuesday of this week, Chicago’s Archbishop Cupich spoke of the need to “redouble our efforts” to ensure a vibrant future for Catholic schools and the children who need them. In our home state of Indiana, Archbishop Tobin of Indianapolis and Bishop Kevin Rhoades, our home bishop, have responded to the opportunity provided by the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program to reopen urban Catholic schools.

Across the nation, bishops are expressing an openness to new forms of school governance, which tap the energy and expertise of laypeople working in partnership with the Church to ensure that Catholic schools are both financially viable and academically excellent. For example, in Philadelphia, Archbishop Chaput has engaged lay organizations to run some of his urban schools, with the hope that the energy and expertise brought by lay collaborators will help enliven and transform them. Bishop Kicanis (of Tucson) and Bishop Lynch (of St. Petersburg) have partnered with Notre Dame to create five Notre Dame ACE Academies animated by two core goals: as the students’ T-shirts announce, “college and heaven.” Other dioceses are interested in expanding this network of schools or creating new networks of high-performing urban Catholic schools. Many dioceses have increased efforts to recruit the Latino families who are the future of the Catholic Church but who often don’t consider Catholic schools to be a viable option for their children

Catholic higher education has stepped up to the plate to lend a hand. As “Domers,” we are proud that the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education has played a lead role in these efforts, with programs that form transformational Catholic-school teachers and leaders, assist dioceses in the effort to recruit Latinos, promote academic improvement, and help schools and students take advantage of public funds as they become available. But numerous other examples of Catholic universities assisting Catholic schools can be found across the U.S.


Lopez: Is there an examination of conscience needed for American Catholics? Does Lost Classroom seek to guide that reflection? 

Brinig: Both of us are Catholic, and both of us have chosen Catholic schools for our own kids. Perhaps as Catholics we discount the distinctive value of our schools (especially if we didn’t attend them). This may be because those of us with more resources are no longer using them to escape poverty as our predecessors have, or because our children are now welcomed, as once they were not, in the public schools.

Laypeople as well as the clergy and Church leadership need to see that the Catholic schools, especially urban Catholic schools, are performing not only education and mission functions, though they do perform these functions, and they perform them well. Catholic schools also are critically answering the call to serve the poor, and not just the Catholic poor, as both educational and community institutions. In many cities, Catholic and non-Catholics alike have generously supported scholarship endeavors to help poorer families send their children attend Catholic schools. We applaud them for their heroic efforts and urge them to continue. But we also believe that Catholics of conscience need to do their part to convince policymakers to adopt some sort of choice model allowing all parents to select the best school for their children, regardless of whether it is public or private, secular or religious. Some 20 states and the District of Columbia have done so, at least in part. This trend needs to strengthen and continue.


Lopez: Why are tax credits and tuition vouchers important?

Garnett: We make clear in our book that the case for parental choice is primarily about education, not community development. We both support expanding the range of educational options for families of modest means to include private and faith-based schools, but we do so because we believe parental choice is good education policy. We also note that parental choice, at long last, levels the playing field for Catholic schools that have been required to go it alone (and compete against options that are entirely free) despite their myriad contributions to the common good.

For generations, these schools have anchored struggling communities and educated the minds of hearts of kids with limited access to high-quality educational options. We did not set out to write a “pro-voucher” book, but we do believe that our empirical story strengthens the case for educational choice. Catholic schools are closing in the places that need them most — that is, in urban centers. And devices like tax credits and vouchers and scholarships can help stabilize fragile schools by placing them within the financial reach of families of modest means.

The parental-choice footprint has expanded dramatically in recent years. As Peg notes, 20 states and the District of Columbia have public-scholarship or tax-credit programs that enable parents to send their kids to private schools. We believe that these programs are a matter of social justice — both because parents are the first and best educators of their children and because they open the door to high-quality schools for kids who need them. We also believe that these programs can enable Catholic schools to not only survive but thrive — although it is the responsibility of Catholic-school leaders to make the programs “work” for the students they serve.


Lopez: So we need to fight for Catholic schools? What’s your opening argument, encouragement, challenge?

Garnett: To our elected officials and the education-policy establishment, we offer the following challenge: Our education policy has, at least until quite recently, come to settle on the assumption that “charters are enough choice.” It is time to reconsider that assumption, to embrace true educational pluralism, and to support policies focused on increasing high-quality educational options across all educational sectors — public, private, and charter.

To our fellow Catholics (especially bishops and school superintendents) and all those who wish to ensure a vibrant future for Catholic schools, we offer three challenges: First, focus on leadership. Our research suggests that the support of school pastors is a major factor predicting whether a school will close, and we believe that strong principals are just as critical. We must find and form the next generation of Catholic-school leaders. Second, recruit Latinos. In the United States, nearly 70 percent of practicing Catholics under the age of 35 are Latino, but only 3 percent of Latino families send their kids to Catholic schools. Third, to echo Saint John Paul II: “Be not afraid.” The game is not up. The future of Catholic schools won’t look like the past, but it can be a hopeful future. Our kids, our communities, and our Church need Catholic schools. So let’s steel our resolve, roll up our sleeves, and get to work.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at- large of National Review Online, and founding director of Catholic Voices USA.


The Latest