Are Catholic Schools Worth Saving?

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

The theme of this year’s Catholic Schools Week identified our Catholic schools as “Communities of Faith, Knowledge and Service,” words that describe very concisely the mission of Catholic education. And in truth, I’m sure that most people, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, recognize the enormous contributions that Catholic schools have made and continue to make to our Church and community.

And yet, the very title of this article suggests that Catholic schools may be at a tipping point; that they are facing formidable headwinds that threaten their progress, even their existence.

Some numbers will illustrate the point.

According to a report from the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA), in the United States, Catholic school enrollment reached its peak in the early 1960s when there were 5.2 million students in nearly 13,000 schools. The 1970s and 1980s saw a steep decline in both the number of schools and students, and by 1990 there were approximately 2.5 million students in 8,700 schools. More recently, in the ten-year period from 2005-2015, 1,648 schools were closed or consolidated, and the number of students declined by another 480,000, almost 20 percent.

These numbers are mirrored in Rhode Island. Here, in the last ten years, 15 Catholic schools have closed, secondary and elementary, diocesan and otherwise. The student enrollment has dropped from 16,450 to 11,767, a decline of 28 percent.

Just in terms of raw data then, there’s no question that Catholic schools here and across the nation are diminishing, but what are some of the factors that have led to this decline?

Well, first, is the rapid decrease in the general school population. In short, there just aren’t as many kids around as there used to be. According to the National Educational Association (NEA), Rhode Island is losing students at one of the highest rates in the country. In the last ten years, the public school population in Rhode Island is down 28,000 students, about 18 percent. This has prompted a number of school districts to study the possibility of closing and consolidating underused school buildings.

Another factor is the growth of charter schools in Rhode Island. Over the past 10 years the number of charter schools in the state has more than doubled, from 11 to 28. This phenomenon has provided more choice for parents but also new challenges for both traditional public schools and private schools alike.

Let me emphasize, that despite some recent publicity to the contrary, I am not opposed to, nor is the Diocese opposed to, the concept of charter schools. We believe that, as a general principle, school choice is healthy for all involved – students, parents, and the local community. In fact, in a number of situations, the Diocese collaborated with charter schools, renting and even selling unused buildings to house these programs.

We have a serious obligation, though, to look at each situation very carefully, to ensure, as much as possible, that the development of a particular charter school will not harm local Catholic schools. Charter schools should co-exist with Catholic schools, not drive them out of existence!

Another factor that has led to the decline of the number of Catholic schools is the burgeoning secularism of our society. In fact, spiritual and moral values, and religious practice, are not as highly prized in our society as they were just a generation or two ago. It has been well-documented that fewer people, across the religious spectrum, are affiliating with faith communities and attending church regularly. This trend has clearly affected the vitality of the Catholic community, including the enrollment in our schools. After all, if you don’t believe in God, if your Faith isn’t important to you, why send your kids to a Catholic school where the handing-on of the Faith is a top priority?

Similarly, the erosion of Catholic identity in our Catholic schools, at least the perception of that erosion, has harmed the Catholic school brand. On more than one occasion, I’ve even heard some of our pastors criticize the lack of identity of our schools. “Why aren’t those kids going to Sunday Mass . . . What they’re learning in the religion classrooms is a disgrace . . . How many vocations to the priesthood have come out of that high school recently . . . I refuse to let that school recruit in my parish. . .” are some of the things I’ve heard our pastors say.

This ongoing concern calls for an examination of conscience for all of our schools. Are our schools explicitly, faithfully and proudly Catholic – in their prayer and liturgy, in their teachings and discussions, in their programs and publications?

These factors – along with the obvious challenges presented by a struggling economy, a burdened middle-class, and the increasing cost of educating children – have conspired to provide a very difficult context for Catholic schools in our time.

But let’s look at some of the strengths and resources, the positive qualities of our Catholic schools, and Catholic identity is at the top of the list.

Although we always need to re-inforce our identity, especially in such a secular society, I think that most often our schools do an excellent job in transmitting the Faith and building the Church. It is in our Catholic schools, and only there, (building upon the foundation of the family, of course) that students can learn about Jesus and his Church, pray and worship together, discuss moral values, and forge lifelong bonds to the Catholic community.

Another strength of our schools is their undeniable record of success. Catholic schools consistently score well in standardized testing, graduation rates, and acceptance into some of the finest colleges and universities in the world. These academic achievements are complemented by a wide array of art and music programs, highly-touted athletic activities, and other extra-curricular programs.

Catholic schools prepare students to achieve success in their professional lives and be leaders in the community. Here we should note too that Catholic schools serve an increasingly large number of non-Catholic students, international students, and minority students, particularly in urban communities.

And perhaps the most important resource of our Catholic schools is the amazing dedication and competence of the individuals involved in our schools – administrators, teachers, staff, volunteers, parents and pastors – folks who believe passionately in the mission of our Catholic schools. Some of the best administrators and teachers in the world are right here in our own classrooms. And our parents often make huge personal sacrifices to provide their children with the blessing of a Catholic education!

Oh well, there’s so much more we could say about our Catholic schools, but to return to the original question: “Are Catholic schools worth saving?” You bet they are! I cannot imagine what the Church would be like without our Catholic schools! It will demand sacrifice, commitment, generosity, and ingenuity to be sure, and all the members of the Church – pastors, parishioners and parents – have a role to play. Without a doubt there will be changes in the future, and sometimes difficult decisions to make. But when it comes to the survival and success of our Catholic schools, I’m all in!