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Catholic Schools Face Hard Times

As the largest non-government provider of education in the U.S., Catholic schools are considered a sensitive gauge of the health of this sector. That's why the news out of San Francisco regarding the uncertain future of Stuart Hall High School is noteworthy. In the 10 years that Stuart Hall has been in operation, it has established a reputation for academic excellence. Yet even its 2010-11 tuition of $32,500 is not enough to offset a $1.1 million budget shortfall ("Exclusive Private School in Danger of Failing").

Readers will be quick to point out that Stuart Hall is an anomaly because of a series of questionable decisions it made. But other Catholic schools across the country serving students from far less affluent families are faring even worse as a result of shifting demographics and rising tuition. Enrollment has plummeted by nearly 20 percent in the last decade to about 2.2 million, according to the National Catholic Educational Association. The number of both schools and students is roughly half of what it was at its peak in the mid 1960s.

The decline disproportionately affects low-income families who constitute one-quarter of total Catholic enrollment nationally. But the trend also affects other families who enroll their children for the discipline and academics that have been the hallmark of these schools for generations. In fact, at one time Catholic schools educated one of every eight children in the U.S. and did it quite well, as famed sociologist James Coleman documented in 1982.

Many of the schools that have been shuttered were fixtures in their communities for decades before large numbers of low-income students were replaced by smaller numbers of middle- and upper-class students. But the recession has also hit the latter hard, resulting in shrinking donations and endowments.

Any attempt to get government funding to keep struggling Catholic schools solvent will be forced to overcome legal obstacles in the form of a series of 19th-century constitutional provisions in some 37 states known collectively as the Blaine amendments. These flatly prohibit the use of government aid for Catholic schools. Although state courts have weakened the amendments over the years, 17 still pose a formidable threat, according to legal experts.

Even if the Blaine amendments were wiped off the books tomorrow, Catholic schools would still have to win over voters. As I wrote in an earlier post, voters have rejected vouchers or their variants in more than 25 statewide referendums in the past by margins of at least 2-to-1. Presumably, vouchers would have allowed parents to send their children to Catholic schools. In the event that vouchers were to appear on the ballot and win approval, the matter would almost certainly be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The last times the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on vouchers were in November 1998 when it allowed the Wisconsin Supreme Court's decision about the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program to stand, and in 2002 when it ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that Ohio's plan did not violate the establishment clause of the Constitution. The plans permitted parents to use vouchers at any school they wanted. What undoubtedly swayed the U.S. Supreme Court was that the money was given to parents of students rather than to the schools themselves.

Supporters of the decision like to point to the impressive success of such schools as Cristo Rey High School in East Harlem, which will send all of its 50 graduating seniors this June to college in the fall even though all come from families near or below the poverty line. But it's important to bear in mind that Catholic schools have the freedom to admit and expel students as they see fit. As a result, they have a distinct advantage over public schools that by law must enroll virtually all students who show up at their door and can expel students only for the most egregious behavior.

The larger issue, of course, is about the separation of church and state. I intend to address this controversy in a future post.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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