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Requiem for Catholic Schools?

It's no longer news that enrollment in Catholic schools is on the skids. Since 2000, it has plummeted 23.4 percent, a loss of 621,583 students ("The Plan to Save Catholic Schools," The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 1). These numbers are best understood by recalling that at their peak Catholic schools educated one of every eight children in the U.S. Despite the decrease in enrollment, however, they are still the largest non-government provider of education. As such, their future deserves a closer look.

The obvious question is why enrollment has fallen if Catholic schools have done as admirable a job educating disadvantaged students as they claim? The answer is not the result of lack of demand but of the inability of poor parents to pay tuition, which has risen because of the growth of tuition-free charter schools and mounting personnel costs. Don't forget that until the 1960s, most teachers in Catholic schools were nuns who never took a cent in salary. Today, nearly 96 percent of the faculty are lay teachers. Although the Supreme Court ruled in 1979 that church schools are not subject to the National Labor Relations Act, lay teachers continue to demand to be paid more in line with their colleagues in public schools ("Catholic School Teachers Wrestle With Faith and Obedience in Negotiating a Contract," The New York Times, Sept. 4, 2011). As a result, Catholic schools have been forced to increase tuition to stay operational.

But beyond the issue of tuition is the debate over evidence of the success of Catholic schools. The data are indeed impressive. Graduation rates and standardized test scores outpace those in traditional public schools. But it's important to remember that Catholic schools can enroll and expel at will, are not required by law to accept special education students, and can alter the curriculum as they alone see fit. Public schools have no such freedom in any of these areas. These advantages notwithstanding, the greatest appeal of Catholic schools to parents of all faiths is the discipline and values-based approach to learning. Parents want the structure that Catholic schools offer and that many public schools do not. It comes down, therefore, to a matter of philosophy.

Despite the hard times they are experiencing, I think Catholic schools are not nearly in as great a peril as they seem. The Education Investment Incentives Act permits corporations and individuals to redirect their tax liability to finance private school scholarships. Unless the Supreme Court rules against the constitutionality of the law down the road, Catholic schools will continue to qualify as a prime beneficiary. So far 11 states have this program, with five more states having similar programs. I expect other states to follow suit. If I'm right, then Catholic schools will have a new stream of income that augurs well for their survival. Miracles sometimes come in unexpected ways.

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