Can Catholic Schools Be Saved?

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Lacking nuns and often students, a shrinking system looks for answers


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Spring 2007 / Vol. 7, No. 2

Bobby and I stood outside the small public elementary school that our children attended, pondering our respective 1st graders’ prospects. The weeds poked up through the asphalt, the windows on the 30-year-old building were dirty, the playground equipment was rotting. Inside the K–2 school, some 600 kids were being prepared for academic underachievement: in a few more years two-thirds of them would be unable to read at grade level.

“Nothing wrong with this place,” Bobby finally said, “that a busload of nuns wouldn’t solve.”

I laughed. I knew exactly what he meant. We grew up on opposite sides of the country (he in New York and I in Oregon), but we both grew up Catholic, in the ’50s, and that meant one thing if nothing else: nuns.

The guardians of moral order and academic achievement for several generations of Catholic boys and girls, these robed religious women ruled with—well, with rulers. And paddles. And, sometimes, fists. Before “tough love” there was Sister Patrick Mary or Sister Elizabeth Maureen. Before No Child Left Behind there were behinds burnished by a swift kick from a foot that emerged without warning from under several acres of robes.

Indeed, our childhood memories, different in detail, were singular in their moral clarity: we knew what a busload of nuns could do. They would march up and down the aisles. (Yes, there would be aisles, in a room filled with 30 to 50 kids—phooey on class size.) And with a glance from behind their starched white wimples, we would learn.


The problem is that there no longer are busloads of nuns; in fact, most schools would be lucky to have a Mini Cooper’s worth of such minimum-wage professional teachers. Their ranks have declined by a staggering 62 percent since 1965 (from 180,000 to 68,000). The staff composition of Catholic schools has similarly been turned on its head, from some 90 percent female religious in the ’50s to less than 5 percent today (see Figure 1). “The school system had literally been built on their backs,” reported Anthony Bryk, Valerie Lee, and Peter Holland in their 1992 study Catholic Schools and the Common Good, “through the services they contributed in the form of the very low salaries that they accepted.” Consequently, costs have soared; average annual tuition has gone from next to nothing to more than $2,400 in elementary schools and almost $6,000 in high schools.

Despite a growing Catholic population (from 45 million in 1965 to almost 77 million today, making it the largest Christian denomination in the United States), Catholic school enrollment has plummeted, from 5.2 million students in nearly 13,000 schools in 1960 to 2.5 million in 9,000 schools in 1990. After a promising increase in the late 1990s, enrollment had by 2006 dropped to 2.3 million students in 7,500 schools. And the steep decline would have been even steeper if these sectarian schools had to rely on their own flock for enrollment: almost 14 percent of Catholic school enrollment is now non-Catholic, up from less than 3 percent in 1970 (see Figure 2). When Catholic schools educated 12 percent of all schoolchildren in the United States, in 1965, the proportion of Catholics in the general population was 24 percent. Catholics still make up about one-quarter of the American population, but their schools enroll less than 5 percent of all students (see Figure 3).

What happened to the Catholics? What happened to a school system that at one time educated one of every eight American children? And did it quite well.

May I Have Your Attention, Please!

As most educators know, Catholic schools work and have worked for a long time. Sociologist James Coleman and colleagues Thomas Hoffer and Sally Kilgore, in 1982, were among the first to document Catholic schools’ academic successes, in High School Achievement: Public and Private Schools. A variety of studies since, by scholars at the University of Chicago, Northwestern, the Brookings Institution, and Harvard, have all supported the conclusion that Catholic schools do a better job educating children, especially the poor and minorities, than public schools.

According to the Common Good authors, Catholic high schools—and many believe that this applies to elementary schools as well—“manage simultaneously to achieve relatively high levels of student learning, distribute this learning more equitably with regard to race and class than in the public sector, and sustain high levels of teacher commitment and student engagement.” One of the keys, they concluded, is the organization of Catholic schools. Parochial schools are less likely to fall into the public-school habit of “structuring inequities”: public schools offer students the chance to take weaker academic courses while Catholic school courses are “largely determined by the school.” The irony, say Bryk et al., is that such a “constrained academic structure” contributes more to “the common school effect” than the potluck served by the public schools. Catholic schools give less weight to “background differences” of their students and thus do not allow those background differences to be “transformed into achievement differences.” Even after adjusting for student background differences, Bryk and his colleagues found significant “school effects” on academic achievement.

“You know the story about the kid whose parents got fed up with their son’s constant discipline problems in the public school?” asked James Goodness, communications director of Newark Catholic Schools, while entertaining journalists at a recent archdiocesan-sponsored luncheon. Newark, the tenth-largest parochial district in the country, closed nine elementary and two secondary schools in 2005, with a corresponding enrollment decline of 5 percent, from some 47,300 to 44,750 students. Goodness, with his story about the problem public-school boy, was explaining what made Catholic schools special. “‘That’s it!’ says the dad. ‘It’s Catholic school for you.’ They sent him. They waited. No calls from school. ‘What’s up?’ the dad finally asks. ‘The nuns been boxin’ your ears?’ ‘No,’ says the kid. ‘They didn’t have to. When I got to school, I saw this guy hanging from a cross with nails in his hands and feet and I figured they meant business.’”

What Catholic schools are very good at, it seems, is getting kids’ attention. No surprise to those of us who grew up in them. The establishment of order and discipline, in all things: We wore uniforms. We had homework. We had to eat our lunch, even the peas and carrots. My wife remembers classmates having to put a nickel in the “mission box” if they mispronounced a word—“libary” instead of library or “pitcher” instead of picture—at her Jersey City parochial grade school. Grammar counted. Posture counted. So did skirt length. It was all for the greater glory of God, of course. By reaching for God, the “all-knowing,” so the nuns said, we might know something even if our reach fell short. There were no prizes for just showing up. All of it, we knew, on some preternatural level, made us “better.” And the research seems to support that view. In fact, one of the “surprises” for the Common Good researchers, who deemed Catholic schools’ academic focus both consistent and laudable, was that the schools seemed to succeed even when the teaching and the curriculum were “ordinary.”

Such Catholic rigor was part missionary zeal—to spread “the word”—and part defense against the encroachments of an increasingly secular world. And secular, for Catholics, meant a certain slackness in moral and academic discipline. In the United States, the so-called “wall of separation” between church and state, between order and freedom, eventually forced Catholics to build their own school system, the only country in the world where they have one (see sidebar). The battles to safeguard order, and academic excellence, were fought early and often. At the turn of the 20th century, for example, Catholic school leaders refused to follow their public school counterparts into a vocational and utilitarian tracking system. “Catholic youth should not be the ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water,’ but should be prepared for the professions or mercantile pursuits,” went one early protestation by the Association of Catholic Colleges.

Catholic schools toyed with progressive education models in the 1970s, but gave it up, report the authors of the Common Good, when they realized they could not be all things to all children. Catholic high schools soon “returned to conventional class-period organization, heightened academic standards and a renewed emphasis on a core of academic subjects.”

Everything but a Plague of Locusts

So, if they are so good, why are Catholic schools disappearing? And if there are so many more Catholics, why are there fewer schools? No more nuns? No more money? Charter schools? Loss of faith? Indolence? Scandal? Irrelevance? The answer seems to be all of that—and less.

“The answer is fairly simple,” says James Cultrara, director for education for the New York State Catholic Conference. “The rising cost of providing a Catholic education has made it more difficult for parents to meet those rising costs.”

The Catholic-school story has been covered, as education journalist Samuel Freedman wrote in the New York Times, “as either a sob story or a sort of natural disaster, the inevitable outcome of demographics.” But Freedman believes that “there need not have been anything inevitable about the closings,” especially since Catholic populations are increasing.

Brooklyn closed 26 elementary schools in 2005, even though its Catholic population has grown by some 600,000 since 1950. “But the other trends were unmistakable,” says Thomas Chadzutko, superintendent of the diocese’s schools, and the man who presided over the closings. “Enrollment was down and expenses up.”

If only it were that simple.

The loss of nuns has undoubtedly added to the financial burden. But demographic change, and the failure to respond to it, has created other burdens. Since the Catholic school “system” is actually a loose and quite decentralized confederation of 7,500 schools supported, for the most part, by 19,000 parishes in more than 150 dioceses, it took “the Church” some time to see the trends, much less develop new strategies to respond to them.

“We have a system of schools, not a school system,” explains Newark’s new vicar for education, Father Kevin Hanbury. “The local parishes traditionally have been responsible for the schools.” Those parishes, and their schools, feel change at the local, neighborhood level quite quickly. But it takes time for the huge, theologically monolithic, and institutionally undemocratic Church to react.

The flight from inner cities to the suburbs by working- and middle-class Americans affected Catholic schools as much as, if not more than, it did public schools. Downtown churches were suddenly filled by poor immigrants from Catholic nations (Latin America and the Caribbean) without a tradition of Catholic schools, much less a habit of paying for them. According to the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA), between 2000 and 2006, nearly 600 Catholic elementary and secondary schools closed, a 7 percent decline, and nearly 290,000 students left, almost 11 percent. The largest declines were among elementary schools in 12 urban dioceses (New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Brooklyn, Cleveland, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Boston, Newark, Detroit, and Miami), which together have lost almost 20 percent of their students (more than 136,000) in the last five years.

One factor is that the public schools in the suburbs are not like the public schools that Catholics tried to avoid in the cities. “Folks got to the suburbs and discovered that it was not only very expensive to build new schools, but that the public schools were not that bad,” says Patrick Wolf, professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas.

And charter schools, says Father Ronald Nuzzi, director of the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) leadership program at Notre Dame, “are one of the biggest threats to Catholic schools in the inner city, hands down. How do you compete with an alternative that doesn’t cost anything?”

Ron Zimmer, of the RAND Corporation, and two colleagues studied the impact of charters in Michigan, one of the most chartered states in the nation, and determined that private schools were taking as big a hit as traditional public schools because of charters. “Private schools will lose one student for every three students gained in the charter schools,” they wrote. This had, they said, “not only…a statistically significant effect on private schools but an effect that is economically meaningful.”

And then came the sex abuse scandals. There has been nothing quite so shattering as the endless parade of headlines about priests abusing children. The Louisville Archdiocese was hit with almost 200 sex abuse suits in a single six-month period in 2003. In April of that year, the Boston Archdiocese revealed that it carried a $46 million deficit, “the largest any diocese has ever had,” according to the New York Times, because it had paid out more than $150 million in legal settlements in sex abuse cases. The crisis in Boston was heightened, said Cardinal Sean O’Malley, because parish donations fell off by several million dollars as a result of the scandal. The diocese closed more than 60 parishes, and dozens of parish schools. A Gallup survey in 2003 found that one in four Catholics withheld donations to the Church because of the scandal. Four dioceses, of the 195 administrative units in the American Catholic church—Davenport, Iowa; Portland, Oregon; Spokane, Washington; and Tucson, Arizona—have already declared bankruptcy because of lawsuits over sex abuse. Others, like Boston, are on the brink.

Marketing for Miracles

“The world changed” was a common refrain of Catholic educators with whom I spoke over several months of research. And it was clear that they included the Catholic world in that assessment. Faith, on many levels, has been shaken. The “new reality,” says Samuel Freedman of the Times, is that Catholic schools “will have to become expert fundraisers to survive.” And marketers. And promoters. And lobbyists. And miracle workers. Catholics are scrambling to find their footing in a world of charters, vouchers, and tax credits.


Spanish and French colonists brought schools (which were Catholic) with them to the New World in the 1600s. There were parochial primary schools in Pennsylvania in the 1700s. The first “female academy” in America was in New Orleans, established by the Ursuline Sisters from France in 1727.

Catholic schools in those days were often supported by public funds. St. Peter’s in New York City applied for and received state aid in 1806, as did St. Patrick’s in 1816. Catholic schools continued to receive public monies in Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Connecticut, and New Jersey almost to the end of the 19th century. New York State did not outlaw the practice until 1898.

Catholics perceived “public school” as not just a threat to Catholics, but, as the 1917 Catholic Encyclopedia (CE) recounts, an “imminent danger to faith and morals.” And in that threat was born the modern Catholic school system, as Catholic bishops convened in Baltimore in 1884 and ordered each parish to build a school and each Catholic kid to enroll. Between 1880 and 1900, as the immigrants began arriving, the number of students in Catholic schools more than doubled.

“The vastness of the system,” the CE reported at the turn of the 20th century, “may be gauged by the fact that it comprises over 20,000 teachers, over 1,000,000 pupils, represents $100,000,000 worth of property; and costs over $15,000,000 annually.” The Church saw its “missionary” duty to educate the new immigrants and in 1910, Catholics counted 293 Polish, 161 French, and 48 Italian

schools, and a smattering of Slovak and Lithuanian schools. But the “vastness” now represented such a threat to the secular system that some considered Catholic schools “a destroyer of American Patriotism,” and John Dewey pronounced the church “inimical to democracy,” Many states simply outlawed Catholic schools. It took a Supreme court decision, in 1925, Pierce v. The Society of Sisters, to declare unconstitutional an Oregon law that required public school attendance. The Catholic “system” continued to grow and by 1965, a stunning 12 percent of all elementary and secondary students in the United States were enrolled in Catholic schools.

Then came sex, drugs, rock ’n roll—and Vatican II. The conclave of the world’s Catholic bishops and cardinals called to order in 1962 by a cherubic old pontiff, John XXIII, turned the Church on its head at a time when the Beatles, Martin Luther King, and the Weather Underground were shaking civil and social foundations to their core. Swept away were the Latin Mass, the Baltimore Catechism, meatless Fridays, the high priest at an altar with his back to his congregation.

Not only are the nuns and priests now gone, but so too is a Catholic culture that for 100 years produced nuns and priests with faithful regularity. Of course, the debate as to whether the demise of Catholic didacticism and marshal order has been good or bad still roils Church waters. But the fact remains that the American Catholic school system isn’t what it used to be.

—Peter Meyer

The Brooklyn diocese has hired a marketing firm. In Newark one of the first things Father Kevin Hanbury did when he was made vicar of education last year, before he hired a full-time marketing director, was host a white linen luncheon for the local media. “We have a story to tell,” says Hanbury, “and we want to get it as close to page 1 as we can.” The story, as Hanbury and other Catholic leaders tell it, is that Catholic schools not only work, but they are good for America. “Many of our schools are majority non-Catholic,” says Karen Ristau, president of the NCEA. Ristau herself, a laywoman, represents a new, and some would say sobered, Church. She has an armful of academic credentials, but is also a grandmother. “We have high expectations for these little kiddos,” she says, speaking of the 2-million-plus children in the Catholic school system that NCEA represents.

After I called the Memphis diocese to inquire about Catholic schools there, a FEDEX truck was at my door the next morning, with a package of press clips, brochures, and a CD. “Let me tell you this story,” says a soft-spoken Mary McDonald, superintendent of Memphis Catholic Schools, also a grandmother. Though McDonald can now describe her first days on the job as superintendent in July of 1998 with some bemusement, when she received orders from her new boss, Bishop J. Terry Steib, to reopen already closed Catholic schools in downtown Memphis, she thought she’d been sent to hell.

Memphis was a sprawling Catholic diocese that had seen the number of its faithful increase by half, but its school enrollment decrease by almost a quarter. While there were new Catholic schools and Catholic schools with waiting lists in the suburbs, inner-city Memphis had become increasingly black and poor and non-Catholic. A half-dozen Catholic schools had closed over the previous two decades. The few schools that remained were in the death grip of aging parish populations, increased costs (the number of nuns in Memphis had dropped from 160 to 80), and dwindling enrollment.

No wonder “the Bishop’s vision,” as she calls it, sent McDonald right to the diocesan chapel and onto her knees. It didn’t seem to matter to Bishop Steib that McDonald, a teacher and school principal during her 30 years in education, had never been a superintendent. “It was daunting,” she recalls. “I just went out and started talking to anyone who would listen—and even those who didn’t want to—about the value of and need for Catholic schools.” And it didn’t matter that the people in those slums where the empty schools were weren’t Catholic, says McDonald, who often quotes a line attributed to Cardinal James Hickey of Washington, D.C., which has become a call to arms in the new crusade to save Catholic education: “We don’t educate these children because they are Catholic, but because we are Catholic.”

A year after McDonald started beating the bushes of Memphis for money, on a July day in 1999, her phone rang. The call was from someone offering “a multimillion-dollar donation,” says McDonald, who told the Memphis Commercial Appeal at the time, “I know a miracle when I see one.” Though the donors—there were more than one—remain anonymous to this day, their $15 million “was earmarked for Catholic education,” says McDonald, recounting the story seven years later, as if she still can’t believe it. “And they weren’t even Catholic.”

McDonald and her staff reopened St. Augustine, a 65-year-old school that had closed in 1995, within three weeks of receiving the donation. McDonald had 20 students registered in three days. The school opened with 30 students in two kindergarten classes. The students didn’t need to have the $2,400 tuition—the donation paid for scholarships—and they didn’t need to be Catholic.

“But the schools are truly Catholic,” says McDonald. “We’re not a public school. We’re not a charter. We have the same values we’ve had for centuries—do the same things. We say prayer every day. We say the rosary at the same time every week. We have Mass for everyone.” And uniforms, of course. “Our donors believed that Catholic education could make a difference,” says McDonald, “and that Catholic schools are successful in inner cities.” Within the next six years, eight more schools reopened, adding more than 1,300 students to the Jubilee School system, the name of the new initiative. Almost 90 percent of the students lived at or below the poverty level; over 80 percent were non-Catholic.

Has all the change and consolidation affected academics? No, says McDonald. Jubilee students are reading at grade level within a year of arriving; they are then outperforming their peers on standardized TerraNova tests. So far, none of the Jubilee students are old enough to have entered high school, but McDonald is optimistic. “We have a 99.9 percent graduation rate in our six high schools. Virtually no one drops out.”

Capital Campaigns and a Voucher in Every Pot

A half-dozen years earlier in Washington, D.C., Cardinal Hickey had appointed a commission to study the problems confronting his diocese’s inner-city schools. “The commission recommended closing 12 of 16 struggling schools,” recalls Juana Brown, who was then the principal of one of those schools, Sacred Heart. Hickey issued his now-famous dictum: “Closing schools is not an option.” He ordered the group back to the drawing board.

When it returned, Hickey’s commission proposed creation of Faith in the City, an outreach and fundraising initiative that included a Center City Consortium (CCC). The task for CCC was solving the mystery of the less-than-holy trinity of modern Catholic education: financial distress, declining enrollment, and falling test scores.

This was the same mystery, on a smaller scale, that Mary McDonald was tackling in Memphis. Though details differed, the “can’t fail” spirit has marked both enterprises and made them models for Catholic school rescue and reform.

“I tried to get people to look at Memphis,” recalls George Loney, who directed Dayton’s Catholic Urban Presence program, launched in 2002 to find a solution to that city’s Catholic school crisis. Loney did help Dayton’s Catholic schools, part of the Cincinnati Archdiocese, achieve “needed economies of scale” by consolidating. And test results are good. “I just can’t get them to publicize them,” he says.

The D.C. archdiocese announced in December of 2006 that it would close—“we prefer to say consolidate,” says communications director Susan Gibbs—three elementary schools in the District. Yet the CCC schools seem to be working. Martin Davis of the Fordham Foundation writes that the 13 consortium schools achieved “remarkable growth” in grades 2 through 8 proficiency rates on the TerraNova from 2000 to 2005. “More remarkable,” writes Davis, “those growth rates include test scores from 2004–05, when 300 high-poverty children from failing District of Columbia public schools entered consortium schools through the new D.C. voucher program.”

In fact, vouchers are proving to be something of an antidote to the threat posed by charter schools. In Milwaukee, for example, according to Paul Peterson, while charters have “accelerated” the decline of private schools, vouchers seem to have “stabilized” them. Catholic schools in the city have been, since 1996, among the many private schools to benefit from the first state-supported voucher program. In 2005, each of the some 14,000 vouchers passed out in Milwaukee was worth $5,943 at any one of 117 eligible schools, 35 of them Catholic. (The 45 charters in the city, allowed since 1993, received between $7,000 and $9,000 per student.) The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel concluded in 2005 that “the principal effect of choice” in the city has been “to preserve the city’s private schools, many of them Lutheran and Catholic.”

David Prothero, associate superintendent of schools for the archdiocese, says the 6,000 Catholic-school voucher students represent nearly half of Milwaukee’s Catholic school students. “That’s significant.”

“The irony is that the research shows that private schools don’t make a big difference for high socioeconomic students,” says Patrick Wolf, author of a recent study on voucher impacts in Washington, DC. “But they do make a difference for low-income students. And they’re the ones who can’t afford them.”

“From a lawmaker’s point of view,” says Jim Cultrara, who is also co-chairman of the New York State Coalition of Independent and Religious Schools and spearheaded a serious, though unsuccessful, effort to have the New York State Legislature pass a tax credit in 2006, “it’s fiscally prudent to provide financial assistance to enroll children in independent and religious schools. It helps reduce the tax burden and alleviate overcrowding in public schools. And that’s not even counting the benefit of providing students with a quality education.”

Thus, the significance of the scholarship programs and vouchers, and the Church’s mission to the poor. The latest NCEA data show the mean tuition and per-pupil cost for Catholic elementary schools to be $2,607 and $4,268, and for high schools, $5,870 and $7,200, all below average public-school per-pupil expenditures. Thus, too, the persuasiveness of the argument that Catholic schools are a form of subsidy to the nation’s public education system. Diane Ravitch wrote, in a Daily News editorial after hearing word of the Brooklyn diocese school closings in 2005, “It will be a loss for all New York City. The Catholic schools in this city have provided genuine choice for children from low-income and working-class families for more than 150 years. What is more, they have established a solid reputation for safety, academic standards and moral values. All of this has been supplied at a nominal cost to families and at no cost to taxpayers.” The NCEA estimates the value of the Catholic school system’s annual subsidy to the nation at $19.4 billion.

Through smart financial administration and management and aggressive fundraising, many dioceses are beginning to take back some ground lost in the last several decades. Pooling resources for such things as collecting tuition, custodial contracts, and paying salaries has saved money as well as freed principals to focus on academics. Through aggressive marketing and with a corporate board of “the rich and powerful,” the D.C. consortium has raised $30 million in a capital campaign in the last five years. An annual gala fundraiser, co-sponsored by Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Representative John Boehner (R-OH), last year garnered $1 million.

“Mr. Boehner has visited every one of our schools,” says Brown. “He’s 1 of 11 children and grew up Catholic and has been a tremendous booster.”

It is probably no coincidence that Kennedy and Boehner were key Capitol Hill strategists in passing the historic No Child Left Behind Act. “Catholics believed in every child learning long before NCLB,” says Juana Brown. “We have a mission to educate.”

The dust has still not settled in the Church. But the new missionaries, like Brown and McDonald, seem as holy and determined as their habited predecessors. Given the Church’s history, one would not want to bet against them, especially on the education front. Can tax credits, vouchers, and fundraisers substitute for the devotions of the faithful? Can marketing directors get those same faithful to forget about the sexual predators? These are serious and still largely unanswered questions. But there is a more vexing concern for some of us, even those of us used to imponderables such as the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin: where do you find a busload of nuns?

Peter Meyer, former news editor of Life magazine, is a freelance writer.

Comment on this article
  • Jon Re says:

    This article is not about education. It is about a war between the Public School System and the Catholic Church. Started by the Catholic Church.

  • Joe Hansbrough says:

    Great article.

  • Veritis says:

    Catholics established their own schools due to the fact that their children were grossly discriminated against in by WASP teachers and administrators in the public schools.

  • JeannieGuzman says:

    I have close to a Master degree in Education. I consider myself “a victim of a Catholic School Education, “which I’ve regretted almost every day of my adult life. Instead of teaching us the fundamentals of math beyond addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, we were taught the Baltimore Catechism and how to “Diagram Sentences.” Science classes were as much of a joke as sex education. Our religion classes were abominable! We didn’t learn Scriptures; we learned the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, which is hardly the same. We were also taught by mean, uncaring nuns, with grudges against their celibate lives. If it were up to me, every Catholic School would have its doors shuttered! I recently wrote a blog about “St. Izzy, the Patron Saint of the internet. ” It is a result of my Catholic School Education, and it can be found at:

  • Katherine White says:

    Jeez, Jeannie, I’m sorry your experience was so sour, but I’m quite certain Catholic schools have changed quite a bit since your days. The Catholic elementary/jr high school I worked at last year, and where my stepson attended the last 2 years exceeds state standards in every subject, including science…has science labs, teaches sex education (including abstinence), provided a bible to each student and religion assignments included using it, and there isn’t a nun in the place (Although a married oblate does teach 5-7 religion).

    But clearly, your logic instruction was a failure (including through your near-Master’s, since you believe your singular experience is a worthwhile standard by which to judge “every” Catholic school)

  • Lee says:

    Ae Nuns really the answer, is there a singular more pressing issue in all Catholic Schools. Lets begin with a statement of fact. Schools are a business they need money to operate the church needs money to serve the masses. My thoughts are as folows. Schools have been forced to compromise their teaching standards, and regulatory systems. Many student who attend Catholic School are NOT Catholic why, the ed system and student control syst are better. Public school have failed to do this. Ed syst are compromised parents don’t have the courage or the time to correct the faults. Students have far to much POWER Will not adapt to the demands of strict ed. Media, social norms peer pressure ego driven demand and self made entitlements. Can’t control without severe financial losses. However student from Catholic far excell public in most areas except sports.

  • […] and inner city students, at a fraction of the government-run school cost. (See, for example, here, here, and here, p. […]

  • Kara says:

    i don’t Agree with your article at all! i am currently enrolled in private catholic school as a junior. For me this experience has been horrible. For one i am not christian in anyway and my theology teachers are constantly reminding how sinful and immoral i am. At the same time shoving their beliefs down my throat and calling it religious equality. They are also attempting to not let me graduate early , even though after this school year i will only need four credits to graduate with a honors diploma. now i could go on and on about all the things wrong with my school. But im not going to. the fact is- catholic teaching no longer has a place in the secular world that is modern society. And due to their under funding they having become greedy to the point where they are harming students (ex. me). So maybe its time for them to let it go.

  • The_Observer says:

    Read your own writing. If you only need 4 more credits for an honors diploma, then the Catholic school you’re attending can’t be that bad now can it? Also, if you hated it so much all these years there was nothing to stop you telling your parents that and request that you’d be transferred to the local public school.

  • The_Observer says:

    Also neglected in this article is the comparison of costs of Catholic schools with the non-denominational private schools. The latter are considerably more expensive than the average Catholic school with some of the former in Manhattan costing $30,000 – $40,000 in fees per annum. ( a few of the high end Catholic schools may approach those fee levels) and boarding schools in New England even more expensive because of lodging fees. As the authors pointed out, the Catholic schools provide the best bang per dollar education wise as well as savings for the government in that they don’t have to provide extra schools and running costs for the Catholic students, past and present, were they to have been in the public system.

  • Mike says:

    Such a complex and storied issue. But yes, indeed, even if all else is taken care of, much of it does really come down to the opening and closing question: Where do you get a busful of nuns?

    Put another way, where do you get a bus filled with females who are willing to work for basically nothing, be celibate, and do work of much higher value than what they’re being paid?

    I assume you would have to start with girls from a young age. And then….I believe what you have from then on is what’s known as a “tough sell.”

    I’d like to know something. Why does it have to be nuns? I get it, I get it, people grow up a certain way in the 70’s and they’re nostalgic for things the way they were. But really. Nothing against nuns, I only say this because it seems we don’t have very many on hand. From a practical standpoint, if we don’t have a busful of nuns, does it really have to be nuns that get this done? Couldn’t it be….some other person? Possibly people who are allowed to have sex? And maybe figure out a way to pay them, too.

  • Traveling Nun says:

    I agree with Mike. A way needs to be found for Catholic schools to pay their teachers and remain financially sustainable. The trouble is right now there’s no way to achieve this than by charging an arm-and-a-leg for tuition, which means that the only people with access to a high-caliber education from a Catholic school will become, increasingly, those with money, making the impact Catholic schools can have in low-income communities increasingly smaller by the year.

  • RH says:

    Look at the larger high schools and you have presidents, VP’s, directors AND THEN the principle listed & & . Cost rise while they build multi-million dollar capital additions and pay executive salaries. They are not positioning themselves to educate poor and working class Catholics but rather to build mega-institutions and nationally ranked sports programs. Great for the egos, bad for the average family. This THS alum would love to send his sons but can’t come up with the $150K it would take.

  • Thomas Joseph says:

    As the time is going from growth to growth in all the area of life many are confused in the field of making a final and top dicernment in education line. Many places it has become a way of only earning than teaching the real values of life and real love for each other in the name of God. Here a time has come once againe where we need to pray and teach the valus of life to each and every child who is approching our schools for the knowledge. Let the love Jesus be planted in the mind of all the upcomming people thorugh our Catholic schools.
    May the love and grace of Jesus be with Us.

  • Veronica says:

    The Catholicism has long been known with the tradition of hegemony. But it is no longer the case of the winner takes it all. The article above is just an “eye opener”. If Catholic schools are becoming lesser in number, it could be attributed to changes in spaces and time. Change is affecting everything in life. Many things are not how they use to be. It is a phenomenon induced by decoloniality.

  • Duke Shotnic says:

    What needs to happen is first, the Catholic administrations must get their house in order and regain the confidence of the flock. Stop hiding abusing priests and shuffling them around, and sell assets to settle the claims. STOP requiring the good teachers to accept low pay and zero retirements as the means in which to pay the bills.

    Second, once cleaned up, the Church should negotiate with their respective states to be paid a portion of the costs of a child who attends a public school. The leverage is in the fact that Catholic shcools are closing at alarming rates, thus shoving students into the public system where the state has to pay 100% of the costs to educate that student. If vouchers in the value of say 50% were paid to the respective Catholic schools the state is saving considerable dollars, and the parents pick up the difference in paying tuition.

    Vouchers never made more sense than they do right now.

  • kathy says:

    I do miss the Catholic Schools of yesteryear they were wonderful! The Catholic Church is the one, true Church founded by Jesus Christ; and as much as we humans try to screw it’s still here 2000 years later. God Bless the nuns! We need more holy, helpful nuns!

  • Tommy O'Brien says:

    Catholic schools of yesteryear as we remember them, NO LONGER EXIST.. catholic schools these days for the rich , entitled children.. and if you don’t fit into the box, then you are made fun of, bullied and left out. Both my husband and I went to all catholic schools, and we sent our five children to them. Two of our children graduated from catholic grammar schools, but we moved the other three. We have found that public schools are great!!! They do discipline , collect money and food for the poor, teach great values and most importantly, the accept each and every CHILD and family , no matter what.. Catholic schools do not do that at all..

  • Kiko says:

    I hink they do great in reading and writing, but horribly in math, science, and foreign language. While English is important, those other schools are important too. I used to go to Catholic school, but I left because people bullied me because of my race (Asian). I do believe it’s getting better though. I want to eventually teach a language such as Japanese or Korean at my old Catholic school. I was lucky, my public school system is one of the best in the U.S.

  • Marie Sugrue says:

    I initially sent my kids to Catholic grammar schools(not saying this is all but our experience). They were learning very little and I was teaching everything at home. They in no way can address gifted or kids with any special needs. If that is your kids they push you out. The bullying problems were atrocious but if you family had money you kid was basically allowed to do whatever they wanted. The elephant in the room is that these schools are serverely under funded and many respects it is effecting the resources and education these kids get. The Church continues to push this under the rug. It got to the point where my children at a young age would cry and not get out of bed they did not want to go to school. This was not what I was paying for. We have since transferred them to our local public school and it is like night and day. Not only are they getting a top notch education but they teach and exemplify the Christian morals and values that were lacking at the catholic school. It is a breath of fresh air and my children and my family are beyond happy. I know I am not alone in my story and that this is the kind of experience many have had. I would have loved to have given my kids a Catholic grammar school education. Something drastic has got to change or most of these schools will close and it is not just a marketing problem.

  • Elizabeth says:

    I teach at a Catholic school and love it. I work hard for my students. But I have to say that I send my kids to a private school. It depends on the school – years ago my older kid’s elementary Catholic school was wonderful, full of caring teachers that pushed a solid curriculum. But is seems that in some schools teachers have not updated the curriculum in 20 years! The last school I had a younger child in only taught 1/2 the math curriculum our public school taught. I so wanted my child to be in a faith based school but when I asked about the curriculum I was ignored. That’s what gets me, if you have a problem and want to talk about it with some schools they just don’t respond. You would think that if they had a good reason for what they were teaching they would support it – but when I asked why the pace was slow and the teacher only gave 2 quizzes a quarter I got no response. As a teacher and parent my opinion is that only 2 things affect enrollment: quality of curriculum/instruction and how students are treated. I know plenty of fine christian parents who want a christian education for their children only to move them to a public school because they are treated too harshly or the curriculum/instruction is not up to par. And then, on the inside, I can say that when enrollment declines the only excuse the school makes is “its the economy” and they hire an additional person to market the school. A private faith based school that teaches a strong curriculum and treats students with respect will always flourish.

  • Douglas says:

    This is a very good exchange of ideas and testimonials on Catholic grade school and high school but it doesnt come close to touching the enrollment crisis being experienced by our nation’s small Catholic colleges. They are suffering, too. What can be done to address this enrollment crisis in our small liberal-arts colleges and universities?

  • Penny says:

    Another Catholic School closing, MOST PRECIOUS BLOOD in LONG ISLAND CITY, N.Y., Brooklyn Diocese
    Closing a solvent school, to fund repairs for the church.
    What a shame, what does this say about all our catholic schools?
    Who will be next?

  • D Lewis says:

    What’s not mentioned is the (now) moral DECAY within Catholic elementary schools. The leadership has failed and psychotic mothers are running the show, hurting many along the way.
    WAKE UP CATHOLIC ARCHDIOCESES! If you want the Catholic Church to have a “come back” BEGIN WITH THE (few but powerful) MOTHERS in these schools. Terrible things are happening.

  • Mark Chandler says:

    The problem with busloads of nuns is that my wife’s memories of Catholic school is being abused by nuns so much that she hid in the chapel.

  • Michael Dremel says:

    After 26 years in the military, I retired with a pension. Prior to that, I had completed my Master’s in Education, plus CA credentialing in Multiple and Single Subject (science). Given the drought of qualified teachers, I thought I would substitute teach as my initial foray into teaching while I completed the requisite two year full credentialing for the state. To my delight and surprise, as soon as I had my name out in the local districts, I was being called to interview for full positions at public and private schools, including Catholic schools. After much contemplation and reflection (and some very in depth visits to the schools), I decided to teach middle school (6-8 grade) Science at a nearby Catholic school. After a time there, with an excellent principal who sought out every way she could to ensure I was happy there (CA Science Teacher Association seminars, etc.), I was dismayed to discover that many of the teachers there were not credentialed. They were hired to teach because they had expertise, or graduated from the school (Pre-K to 8th grade, by the way). That said, I make a point of wearing a suit or coat and tie every day, being to work early, prepared for class, etc. My students’ parents are very involved, and tell me that their children come home talking about what they learned in science. Though I have some students who require additional discipline (maturity issues, etc.), overall I have great students because 1) I don’t have a corporate history (I have no experience with any of my students as a previous teacher, so no preconceived ideas of them), 2) I have no dog in the fight myself (I was not a graduate of the system, nor were any of my children), and 3) I started Day One treating my students as if they were all gifted, expecting high standards, and they respond in kind.
    Some drawbacks: Catholic schools are supposedly not required to adhere to state standards, though they are free to do so. Only last year the school decided to begin adjusting to using state Math standards, with English Language Arts (ELA) coming next year, and THEN science. I decided to simply start making the move now, incrementally, so that when the date comes, everything’s in place. So schools are starting to push for meeting standards. Teacher pay (oh for the good ol’ days of nuns who were cheap, but again, many not credentialed), is only 90% of local public school districts, so usually there is a “do it for the children” motivational speech. Finally, when I visited the local Diocese school office, I noticed at the outset that from the superintendent all the way down to every principal, the only names were of women. I inquired and was quietly told that usually when men are “groomed” for administrative office, if they are credentialed et al they are scooped up with incentives as much higher pay. I gently asked if any of the people in administration had education degrees or credentials: only one had a degree in Education. It should be noted that our school’s Vice Principal of the Middle School has been there for seven or so years, an excellent teacher, but not credentialed. I’ve heard some say that this paradigm is, in a sense, a way to keep teachers a the schools: they are not qualified to teach OUTSIDE of the Catholic system. (NB: now there is a small push to get our school’s teachers credentialed). Our Middle School Vice Principal does not, like me, wear suits, he wears jeans, sandals and polo shirts. Parents have often mistakenly thought that I was the VP, and expressed their dismay that, although I have credentials, higher degrees, work well with the students and have good rapport with the parents, I cannot be the VP, Principal, or Superintendent… why? Because I am not Catholic, and therefore have no advancement opportunities. I love the school, the teaching, the close rapport with parents, and of course the students, but if an opportunity came thought that had sufficient financial incentive, I might have to leave this great school.

  • Michael Dremel says:

    After reading the comments above, I note that there is a plethora of respondents who are characterizing the entire Catholic school system based upon their own experience instead of real research. Diocese superintendents would be wise to conduct surveys of past and present students and their parents, as well as local school parents to determine weak and strong areas as well as find the information gaps. Those gaps, which may be based on hearsay or fact, can then be assertively addressed via media and presentations. As for teachers (nuns, non-credentialed, bullies, blessed good ones, etc), I do agree that pay and retirement should be addressed. My own research showed that after the “Era of the Noble Nuns” teaching in schools (cheap, little credentialing, etc.), the gaps were filled with mothers (married, with children) who taught, and again, at relatively low pay, and always with the “for the good of the children and our faith” motivational speech. Now society and times have presented a new paradigm: the general society see parochial schools still as “better” than public schools, though not as highly as before due to the priest as pedophile paradigm (which was NOT dealt with well, then or now), but still viewed as better. Teachers (single women, young marrieds, perhaps even a man or two) cannot survive on regular teacher pay, let alone the rate given by most Diocese schools. Again, the diocese has probably relied far too long on married mothers who already have a husband bearing the breadwinner burden so that the teaching mom income is a plus, but certainly not enough to really live alone if single. The answer should be to raise the pay and benefit package so that there is parity with local public schools – thus, diminishing the financial incentive to move to another school. As for financing and tuition, some creative marketing, scholarship, sponsorship and other methodologies could help here, especially if schools invoked a “no child refused because of money” issues. Bullying because someone doesn’t “fit”? That’s a training issue: principals and teachers trained to teach their students anti-bullying, have programs to promote whistleblowing and cooperation (Olweus is one good program). Probably won’t get to a zero for awhile, but certainly a much lower rate than if there is no program. (And the teasing issue about socio-economic status, etc., is not particular to Catholic schools – it’s prevalent in ALL schools). Catholic schools that don’t respect non-Catholic students? Again, it’s a teacher training issue – teachers get training on how to address such issues so that no student feels singled out or pushed to become Catholic. I get there’s probably a well meaning motivation behind a Catholic teacher trying to convince a non-Catholic student to convert, but actually, there are ways to do it and ways NOT to do this, and mutual respect is key. So let’s recap: teachers must be exceptional, well trained, credentialed, life long learners, respectful if they expect actual respect, and be paid commensurate with their skills and dedication on par with local public schools. Diocese schools need to truly regain the trust and confidence of the local and faith community, and that will take incremental, positive steps over time, plus be transparent, business-like in their financial dealings. Actively recruiting role models, like more males (that means parity compensation so that they aren’t head headed by other schools). Two radical ideas: 1) Rescind artificial barriers to advancement to administrative positions, like only Catholics can be principals, etc. Find hiring procedures and criteria that balance that equation, and that means priests, laypersons from the school, etc., being proactive and smart about establishing those criteria, 2) Create an “interim teacher” program, where after five years or so every teacher must swap out for one year to another Catholic school. [A teacher can opt out, but at the risk of any promotion or further raises]. The schools get some experienced yet “new” blood and ideas, and teachers gain likewise. (It’s what one learns after one knows it all that really counts). Such a program would also show some of the “iconic”, aged, entrenched teachers who refuse to change for the better that their school can and will survive without them (A paradigm I see in at least two schools so far – and worse, these teachers believe themselves to be untouchable, above reproach, all knowing, and in extreme cases, bullies toward students or peer teachers who, unless there’s a program in place for reporting, feel no power to stop them. (Wow, like a new pedophile-like issue?). I invite your civil and informed thoughts and opinions to all this…

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