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Catholic Schools Are at a Crossroads

Faced with demographic shifts, financial pressures, and competition from charter schools, Catholic schools are being forced to adopt new tactics in order to remain a viable choice for parents  ("The Catholic School Revival," The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 27).  

Despite their low tuition compared with that at private schools, Catholic schools still are beyond the reach of many low-income parents.  That's why charter schools have great appeal. Although some offer many of the characteristic features of Catholic schools, charter schools are publicly funded. As a result, they have drawn many of the same low-income students who in the past would be in Catholic schools.

Yet there is hope. Various philanthropies have stepped in to help Catholic schools, which have also benefited from the use of vouchers and tax credits. This is reflected in the increase in enrollment.  In 2000, only 29,000 students attended a religious or private school with public support.  But in 2014, nearly 354,000 students did, according to the American Federation for Children.

As readers of this column know, I support parental choice.  But I fail to see why vouchers and tax credits are constitutional when they are used at religious schools.  At one time, 37 states had what were known collectively as the Blaine amendments, which flatly prohibited the use of government aid for Catholic schools. State courts have weakened the amendments over the years, as in Wisconsin.

Despite the trend, the Colorado Supreme Court in June ruled in Taxpayers for Public Education v. Douglas County School District that the Douglas County voucher program was unconstitutional because it violated the state's Blaine Amendment.  I think this was the correct ruling. Nevertheless, one critic called the amendment a "Mickey Mouse" provision ("Heading for a Fall," Education Next, Winter 2016).  

In light of the changing landscape, the parental choice movement has resulted in Catholic schools placing greater emphasis on marketing to increase the number of non-Catholic students. Los Angeles, which already has more charter schools than any other city in the country, intends to double the number in the next eight years. In that environment, all schools will be forced to vie with each other for students.  If Catholic schools can adapt to the new landscape, they may well recapture their former prominence.


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