3 reasons why Philly (and the nation) needs Catholic schools
Last week, Philadelphia’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Catholic Education made the dispiriting but long-expected announcement that the Archdiocese will close or consolidate nearly 50 schools. Keeping more than 150 schools open with enrollment down a third over the past decade is creating enormous cost pressure for the city’s parochial schools, and the Commission saw consolidation as the best hope for saving the nation’s first diocesan school system, a key part of Philadelphia’s heritage founded by St. John Neumann.
As we described in our 2008 report, Who Will Save America’s Urban Catholic Schools?, Catholic schools face major challenges in the form of declining enrollments, fewer vowed religious sisters and brothers available to teach students, and shifting population and demographic patterns. These pressures don’t only impact Catholic Americans, however. Anything that weakens the nation’s parochial schools means bad news for education generally, for three reasons:
- Catholic schools are relatively cheap. According to data from the National Catholic Educational Association, the average per pupil cost for Catholic elementary schools is just under $5,500, and the cost for high schools is less than $11,000 per student. The average for K-12 public schools is more than $10K per student, making Catholic schools a serious bargain, especially since private contributions further reduce the actual tuition charged to parents.
- Catholic schools are effective. Achievement results on NAEP suggest performance in parochial schools compares very favorably to public schools. (Parents are pretty satisfied, too!) This is a bargain for the country, with about two million students getting a solid education for very few dollars (and almost no public money) every year.
- Catholic schools strengthen civic life. Charles Glenn presents a vigorous argument in this month’s First Things that sectarian schools are critically important for advancing religious liberty in a multicultural society. The notion that respect for differences requires the creation of a bland, secularized public square has proven rather weak. Giving parents the option to raise their children in a vibrant educational community that imparts a positive moral upbringing – with options for children of each religious tradition, and none – is an important priority after decades of retreat by public schools on questions of ethics and moral formation.
There’s no easy fix to the problems faced by Philadelphia’s Catholic schools or other troubled religious schools around the country, as our report on urban Catholic schools acknowledged. Expanding the reach of vouchers and easing other restrictions on private schools are both good steps to take, but neither is a panacea. It is clear, however, that the issues these schools face should be taken seriously by education reformers more generally. The more seats that are available in Catholic schools—and other religious schools like them—at a competitive cost, the better off parents and students will be.
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About the Editor
Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow
Chris Tessone was a Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow and the Director of Finance of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He has strong interests in governance and education finance, especially teacher compensation and school facilities finance.
May 23, 2013