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Catholic Schools on the Ropes

At the peak of their existence, Catholic schools educated one of eight students in the country, and did it quite well. But financial pressures and demographic changes have resulted in a 23.4 percent decline in enrollment since 2000, a loss of some 621,583 students. This has resulted in the closing of a number of venerable Catholic schools, particularly in large cities.

The reasons for the changes have been well documented ("A Lifeline for Minorities, Catholic Schools Retrench," The New York Times, Jun. 21). But what is not fully understood is the effect on low-income students when Catholic schools close. These are the schools that historically have provided families with a lifeline.

Nevertheless, these parents actually have more choices than they believe. The most promising is charter schools. Although they will not fully satisfy parents seeking the same religious education offered by shuttered Catholic schools, they offer a better option than underperforming traditional public schools. Moreover, charter schools do not charge tuition.

There is also hope for parents in the form of vouchers. Despite plummeting Catholic school enrollment nationwide, several cities have actually seen slight increases. I expect to see further upticks in states that allow vouchers to be used at any school and in states with tax credit and scholarship programs. For low-income and minority parents, these programs constitute a godsend.

Consider Indiana, home of the nation's largest voucher system ("Vouchers Breathe New Life Into Shrinking Catholic Schools," The Wall Street Journal, Jun. 8, 2012). More than 2,400 students have used state vouchers to transfer from public to Catholic schools. These schools, like private schools, are permitted to retain their admissions practices, but they must also administer the state achievement tests and agree to be part of the state school rating system.

Other states have their own rules for voucher recipients. I haven't seen any data regarding the number of non-Catholic parents who choose Catholic schools, even though this is a trend that has the potential to keep the schools operating.

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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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