The End to Catholic Parochial Education?

The New York Times reported that the Roman Catholic school system is in decline. In Brooklyn, NY the Diocese of Brooklyn has closed 14 schools this year. The projection is that the Diocese of Brooklyn last week proposed closing 14 more elementary schools. Enrollment in the nation’s Catholic schools has steadily dropped by more than half from its peak of five million 40 years ago.

Parochial schools provide a valuable service to many of our nation’s youngsters. In recent years, they have attracted poor and minority students — including non-Catholics — seeking havens of safety and order from troubled public schools. Roughly 20 percent of parochial school students are not Catholic, according to experts.

The Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. was so desperate to save seven struggling parochial schools last year that it took down the crucifixes, hauled away the statues of the Virgin Mary, and — in its own word — “converted” the schools in the nation’s capital into city charter schools.

The Washington choice seemed an extreme measure to deal with the predicament facing Catholic education: How to maintain a Catholic school tradition of no-frills educational rigor, religious teaching and character-building — a system that has helped shape generations of America’s striving classes since the turn of the last century — when Catholics are no longer signing up their children.

Roughly 2,000 parochial schools have been since 1990, a majority in just the last eight years.

At its peak in 1965, the church’s network of parochial schools numbered more than 12,000 in the United States. The bulk of those were built starting at the turn of the century, when Catholic bishops commanded every parish to build one, largely from concern that waves of Catholic immigrants then arriving from Ireland and Italy would be lost in a public school system that was openly hostile to their beliefs.

By 1965, roughly half of all Catholic children in America attended Catholic elementary schools, according to the National Catholic Educational Association. Among Latinos, the fastest-growing church group — soon to comprise a majority of Catholics in the United States — it is only 3 percent.

What has caused this trend? There are a number of factors including a shortage of nuns and priests who once ran the schools at no extra cost and have been replaced by lay staff with pension benefits. Another factor is the rising cost of tuition