Wither Catholic Education?

Jul 18, 2015 by

Michael Lotti –

It’s probably time for a long-term renewal of American Catholic schools.

On the surface, the Catholic educational system in the U.S. is impressive. It’s the country’s largest private school organization, with around 1.8 million K-12 students (and another 150,000 or so in Pre-K programs). Racial and ethnic breakdowns in Catholic schools almost exactly mirror that of the U.S. as a whole. Overall, Catholic schools spend less per pupil than public schools do, and their students score notably better on assessment tests.

But there’s bad news as well. Enrollment in Catholic schools has declined by 20% in the past 10 years, with closing and consolidations in nearly every large city – and this despite 76 million Catholics in the U.S.

Why the decline? Broadly speaking, there are three reasons:

  1. Homeschooling. The Catholic homeschooling movement has grown to perhaps 100,000 students (although definitive numbers on Catholic homeschoolers are hard to come by), no doubt peeling some of those students away. Even a short tour through the Catholic homeschooling blogosphere reveals common refrains: we do a better job than the local Catholic schools (especially in terms of faith education), and we do it at a fraction of the cost.
  2. Cost. Even at half the average price of private schools, the average tuition at Catholic elementary schools is almost $5000, with the average secondary school at $8000. Multiply that by the traditional “big Catholic family” (or even just one with two children), and it’s no mystery why so many Catholics send their kids to public schools. It’s also no coincidence that the decline in Catholic school enrollment in the past ten years largely happened during the economic downturn that began in 2009.
  3. Identity. By and large, Catholic schools are designed and run by education professionals trained within education departments in American colleges and universities. A common result is that they look like public schools with a religion class (and a fairly weak religion class at that). More deeply – and we don’t have the space to analyze this fully in a blog post – the current philosophy (following John Dewey) behind such education is “instrumentalist,” which means that education is justified and planned for its ability to equip children for the American workforce. But why does anyone need a religion class to be a good engineer, lawyer, secretary, or entrepreneur? More to the point: why would anyone pay for that when a free instrumentalist education is available down the street? Maybe even more to the point: should Catholic schools be “instrumentalist” at all when the long tradition of Catholic education is much more closely aligned with “classical” aims?

So American Catholic schools are generally facing a huge challenge. In order to attract their natural customers – i.e. Catholics – they have to offer something that is more than “a public school with a religion class.” This means, by and large, that they have to do some re-thinking (and maybe some soul-searching) about the “what” and the “how” of a distinctively Catholic education. And in order to compete in the broader marketplace of education, they have to attract some (maybe a lot of) non-Catholic families. And they have to offer education at affordable prices or offer lots of financial aid.

Is the Catholic Church up to this challenge? I would say “no,” but thankfully, that doesn’t matter. The Catholic Church almost never does anything en masse, and Catholic schools are controlled by a surprisingly wide range of groups. This lack of centralization is actually a strength, for it allows for individuals and small groups undertake the necessary “soul-searching” to make local Catholic schools and even small Catholic education systems better.

Are some individuals and groups doing such work? Yes, and in future posts, I’ll highlight some of these efforts. For now, though, it’s enough to say that, without significant work toward renewing American Catholic schools, it’s not hard to imagine another 20% enrollment drop in the next decade.

Source: Wither Catholic Education? | Better Ed

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