As educators and students across the nation conclude Catholic Schools Week, it’s important to recognize, as the Wall Street Journal’s William McGurn recently noted, that Catholic schools have offered a “lifeline to hundreds of thousands of children who would otherwise be out of class and losing ground.” And yet, these schools continue to face headwinds, including the reality that education funding discriminates against parents who choose Catholic or other non-public institutions.
Indeed, the sharp contrast between Catholic schools’ response to COVID-19 and that of public-school districts demonstrates the need to start funding students rather than systems. Only then can we say education funding is truly equitable.
Consider the case of Boston, which illustrates the inadequacy of system-based funding. Early in the pandemic – when many churches and businesses were shuttered and families lost income – enrollment in Boston’s Catholic schools dropped by 5,700. Soon thereafter, the public-school teachers’ unions announced they weren’t returning to the classroom in the fall. Almost immediately, phones began ringing off the hook in Boston’s Catholic schools. Enrollment jumped back up by 4,000 students.
While many of the area’s public schools have yet to return to in-person education, Boston’s 31,000 Catholic school students and 3,000 teachers have successfully remained in the classroom all year. “The Catholic school approach is to stay open wherever we are allowed,” Thomas Carroll, superintendent of Catholic schools in Boston, told the Wall Street Journal.
The same holds true in Arlington, Virginia. The region’s 17,000 Catholic school students have been learning in person – either full-time or hybrid – since last fall. Meanwhile, most children in the school districts within the Arlington Diocese – Arlington, Alexandria, and Fairfax County – haven’t set foot in their classrooms.
Tragically, since most states discriminate against families who choose private education options, families with lower incomes may not be able to afford Catholic schools. Thus, their children – who already face educational disadvantages – miss out on the benefits of finding the right educational fit. This year, the right fit could mean the difference between virtual school and an entire year of in-person education. If we had equitable funding – where education dollars followed children to the school of their choice – lower income families would have equal opportunity.
Now, what will happen to future generations as Catholic schools close in the face of competition from tuition-free public schools? We’ve already seen a spike of Catholic school closures since the pandemic began. Even schools with a long and proud history, like Greater Philadelphia’s John W. Hallahan and Bishop McDevitt Catholic high schools, aren’t immune to fiscal realities. Hallahan was the first all-girls diocesan Catholic high school in the country. Meanwhile, the Institute of Notre Dame – the oldest all-girls Catholic school in Maryland – also announced it will be closing. Nationwide, an estimated 150 Catholic schools have made similar announcements during the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s tough to compete with “free” – even if your product is in high demand. That’s a lesson Catholic schools know well. In the past year, this point has been made even clearer.
In Pennsylvania, taxpayers currently spend around $18,000 annually per child in public schools. Tuition at both Hallahan and McDevitt is just half that – around $9,000. If even a portion of funding followed students to the school of their choice, more parents would be able to afford the educational option that suits their children best.
While the pandemic isn’t the sole cause of Catholic school closures, it has certainly exacerbated the situation. At Hallahan and McDevitt, financial aid requests are up 46% as families struggle with income loss. But there is no sign that families don’t want these options. Even before the pandemic, nearly half of Pennsylvania parents said they would choose a private school for their children if cost and transportation weren’t concerns.
The closure of Catholic schools won’t just harm the families they serve. Catholic schools are vital members of their local communities.
When COVID-19 first struck, Catholic schools immediately pivoted to help their families and surrounding communities deal with the new challenges. Parents at Philadelphia’s St. Anastasia School, for example, raised money to buy meals for frontline workers – supporting both local businesses and emergency personnel. Many raised money to help families continue to afford their tuition. Moreover, studies have shown that Catholic schools have a tremendous economic impact on their communities.
Throughout the country, lawmakers are working on less discriminatory education funding that supports all types of education, not just one system. Legislation to expand parental choice has been introduced in at least 17 states. More should follow suit.
True educational equity arises from having more quality options that parents are empowered to choose for their kids. That’s why we need to fund students rather than school systems – providing access to an excellent education regardless of income, race, or neighborhood.
Colleen Hroncich is senior policy analyst at the Commonwealth Foundation and a Visiting Fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.