Catholic Education

the task of Catholic educators today, those who have been called to this ‘guidance of souls’, is different to that of their predecessors. We live now in a world where the Spirit is inviting us to a much greater openness in our religious education. The challenge today is not to offer the present set of learners that – in many ways very attractive – set of coherent and confidence-inducing beliefs that their direct ancestors received, but something different: it is to offer to them the possibility of an encounter with Jesus Christ.

Now it needs to be said right away that you cannot possibly make this encounter happen, all you can do is create the conditions of possibility; and a Catholic school is a very good place to do it, for the question about Jesus, and the ancient faith of Catholicism that frames that question, is part of the wallpaper. But today’s learners are very different to those of the 1950s and 1960s. I hazard the guess that most children in Catholic schools do not go to church on Sunday of their own accord, that their parents are not always practising in that narrow sense of being at Mass on Sunday; but that today’s students are nevertheless remarkably more open to religious faith, to Christianity, and even to the Catholic expression of that faith than such people were even ten years ago. That is my impression from the youngsters with whom I am dealing. I hazard the further guess that modern learners know almost nothing of this Catholic faith, even though they are quite open to it.

Thousands of Catholic schools have closed, most in low-income urban neighborhoods. Many of the remaining schools struggle with maintaining enrollment, attracting and retaining top-tier educators, and making financial ends meet. Because these challenges are the result of long-term shifts in city demographics, societal conditions, and urban K‒12 public policies, it would seem that there is little that Catholic-school leaders can do to stem the tide. The forecast has been bleak.

But over the last decade or so, some corners of Catholic education—a field long wedded to traditional ways—have embraced a series of innovative reforms. New approaches to instruction, governance, and technology, combined with the utilization of burgeoning public-voucher and tax-credit programs, are helping to revitalize the sector. Although much remains true to form, Catholic primary and secondary schooling is also exhibiting more entrepreneurialism and energy than it has in decades while at the same time preserving its commitment to the religious formation of boys and girls.

This unexpected blend of old and new is at the heart of what may become the renaissance of Catholic K‒12 education in America.

A Half-Century Losing Streak

For decades now, top scholars, including James Coleman and Anthony Bryk, have described what is sometimes called the “Catholic-school effect.” These schools appear to have an unusual ability to close achievement gaps and enable disadvantaged students to reach higher levels of accomplishment. Although the research is mixed on Catholic schools’ influence on test scores, their students are more likely to graduate from high school, attend college, earn higher wages, and engage in pro-social behaviors like voting and volunteerism. This is especially true for low-income and minority students (see “Schools of Choice,” features, Spring 2016).

Studies have suggested that this is at least partly attributable to the ability of Catholic K‒12 to create a particular (and positive) school culture. The hypothesis has been that Catholic schools’ nurturing but no-excuses environment emanates from their educators’ shared belief that they have a moral duty to help every single child. This in turn shapes the behavior of and relationships among teachers, administrators, students, and families. This could be the reason why recent research by Margaret F. Brinig and Nicole Stelle Garnett finds that urban Catholic schools may positively influence social capital in the neighborhoods in which they are located.

But despite such success, Catholic K‒12 has been on a half-century losing streak. At its mid-1960s peak, the sector educated 5.6 million students in approximately 13,000 schools nationwide. (By way of comparison, in 2013‒14 the entire state of California had about 10,000 public schools.) Today, fewer than 2 million students attend just 6,500 Catholic schools in this country. The closures have hit urban neighborhoods the hardest: Since 2005 alone, nearly one-quarter of the elementary schools located in the nation’s 12 largest urban dioceses have closed.

Many factors have contributed to this steep decline: in the 1960s and 1970s, white middle-class families fled to the suburbs, taking with them tuition dollars and tithes and leaving behind poorer, primarily non-Catholic populations. The dramatic expansion of charter schools in urban areas has provided families with tuition-free alternatives to district schools, making it difficult for tuition-dependent Catholic schools to compete. The nation as a whole has become increasingly secular and less anti-Catholic, meaning fewer families feel compelled to place their kids in a Catholic educational setting. Tragic scandals have also rocked the Catholic Church, creating distrust among families and financial burdens for parishes and dioceses. Fewer individuals are choosing religious vocations, causing schools to hire more expensive lay staff.

When put together, these changes have made the traditional Catholic-school model financially unsustainable. Some would even say the combined influence of these factors is so overwhelming that a Catholic-schools comeback is now in the realm of miracles.

But it’s also the case that when Catholic-school advocates tally the forces that have conspired against them, they ought to put a mirror at the end of the list. Often resting on their laurels and obstinately seeing constancy as virtue, this sector has been change-resistant to a fault. Even public policy—notoriously glacial—responded to the decades of urban-district failure by creating chartering, recovery school districts, mayoral takeovers, and much more.

But the Church proved more ossified: the organization, management, staffing, funding, and governance of urban Catholic schools was nearly identical when Catholic schools took off in the 1890s, ascended in the early 20th century, and collapsed in the century’s second half. Even on a seemingly tactical matter—becoming more welcoming to America’s exploding Hispanic population—Catholic schools made too little progress for too long. Today, while Hispanics make up 40 percent of all U.S. Catholics, only 3 percent of school-age Hispanic children are enrolled in Catholic schools.

It is telling that the 1990s and 2000s saw a proliferation of civil-society activity associated more with urban public education than with urban private education. A vast array of nonprofit organizations came of age to support public school innovation: Teach For America, TNTP, dozens of high-performing charter school networks, new-school incubators, advocacy organizations, and much more. Somehow, a wave of social entrepreneurs actually saw the typically sclerotic public sector as a more promising partner than the ostensibly unencumbered, nimble Catholic schools sector. In hindsight, this stands out as a glaring unforced error by Catholic education.

It must be said, however, that many individuals and organizations dutifully supported Catholic schools in their hours of need. Philanthropists, in particular, gave generously to save countless schools from closure and provide low-income students access to otherwise unattainable schools. But it is also notable that much of this effort took for granted most of the old Catholic-school apparatus. For example, scholarship programs enabled disadvantaged kids to attend extant, financially struggling schools; new educator-preparation programs sent fresh teachers into the unchanging, aging system.

What is most noticeable and most different about the promising efforts of the last decade is that Catholic-education reformers are now taking a different tack. Like many of the most encouraging public-school reforms, these efforts have been organic and highly decentralized. There’s not been a national Catholic-schools strategic plan or even grand, sophisticated initiatives emanating from diocesan central offices. Instead, individual church and school leaders, local philanthropists, and a range of social entrepreneurs have developed and grown innovative and (by Catholic-school standards) radical approaches.

This generation of reformers has no interest in secularizing Catholic education. Lourdes Academy, a Notre Dame ACE Academy, provides a high-quality Catholic education infused with gospel truths within a safe, supportive, and challenging learning envi)

This generation of Catholic-school reformers is absolutely loyal to authentic Catholic education; they have no interest in secularizing it. But they have shown an enviable openness to altering nonessential practices. They are fully committed to ensuring a brighter future for Catholic education, but these are by no means your father’s, grandfather’s, or great-grandfather’s Catholic schools.