Catholic Schools Decline, Despite Growing Demand

Between 1965 and 1990, more than a third of Catholic parochial schools in the United States closed, with enrollment falling by half. After stabilizing in the 1990s, enrollment is again falling, despite strong demand from students and families.

Less than three years after the latest round of closings, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, is set to decide whether to close 26 elementary schools and a high school.

Despite sharp tuition increases over the past decade, there are waiting lists at nearly a third of Catholic schools and the Catholic population of the U.S. has increased by 45% since 1965.  So why is the future of Catholic education so uncertain? 

Parochial schools, since the 19th century, have offered an affordable education to the inner city poor, helping generations of immigrant children break free of the cycle of poverty and lack of education.

Until the 1960s, parochial schools were staffed by priests and nuns, but with fewer now entering the religious orders and parochial schools facing increasingly stiff competition from charter schools, many dioceses could see only elite Catholic academies and a few donor-supported schools survive.

Catholic revenues grew to $11.9 billion in 2010, up by about $2.2 billion over the last decade, while educational subsidies fell. The church, which paid 63% of parochial elementary school costs in 1965, now pays about 12%, even with lay priests and deacons playing an expanded role.

The bishops could practice the social justice they preach by allowing wealthy parishes and dioceses to help poorer ones, staving off enrollment-defeating tuition increases.

Catholic education otherwise faces a grim future.  Nearly 1,500 parishes have been closed since 1990.  Most were small, but big-city parishes face the same threats.

If Catholic schools, as John Hughes, New York's first archbishop, said, are more necessary than the church, the decline in parochial education may forewarn the fate of the church itself.

The New York Times opinion piece.

Brooklyn spared in latest round of parochial school closings [Prospect Heights Patch.]

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