The Death of Catholic Schools in America

The headline in CRUX says, “Bishops consider plans to revitalize appeal of a Catholic education.” This is Vatican-speak for “Can we save the patient?” Buried in the article are statistics showing that Catholic schools in America are dying off at an alarming rate. I suspect this is also true of many other countries.

The lengthy article contains a brief paragraph of facts:

Figures from the National Catholic Educational Association show 1,393 Catholic school closings or consolidations from 2007 to 2017 compared with 287 school openings. During the same period, enrollment declined by 19 percent to less than 1.9 million students. Enrollment peaked in 1965 at more than 5.2 million students.

In just the last decade, enrollment in Catholic schools dropped by almost 20%. During this time, the number of Catholics in the US increased. Since 1965, enrollment dropped by 65%. Throughout this period, Catholics comprised a remarkably consistent 25% of Americans. While the Catholic population of America increased by over 65% since 1965, enrollment in Catholic schools dropped by 65%.

The article is about a bishops’ meeting to address the problem. It adds that “the meeting was the sixth in a series since 2009 looking at the future of Catholic education.” It took quite some time for them to recognize the problem, and they have made no apparent progress.

In the old days, Catholic schools were mainly taught by nuns, and their elementary schools often compared favorably with public schools - especially in areas like the inner city that had trouble attracting teachers. Nuns worked where they were told. Many liked serving disadvantaged students, and they worked for low wages. But nuns have largely disappeared from Catholic schools. It is far from obvious how such schools can attract good teachers while keeping costs low. Worsening attitudes toward the Catholic Church compound the problem. If Catholic schools fail to get public money to bail them out – and they are seeking charter school status for that end – the traditional parochial school will become a thing of the past.