Why Catholic Schools Deserve a Public Break

There’s a whiff of triumphalism in the air at the National Education Association’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. Enemies of school-choice legislation believe they have their adversaries on the run. Discussions of a national voucher program were cut short early in the congressional budget battle this year, in part because voucher referenda in Michigan and California took serious beatings in the polls last fall. Only the faintest hope now exists that the federal government might provide financial assistance to parents who choose Catholic and other private schools for their children.

The battle for school choice is being lost quite simply because few voters recognize the enormous contribution private schools make to the common good. In every important way, private schools are public schools, because they mold children into successful adults. Among their benefits: higher levels of literacy and basic math skills and the inculcation of moral and spiritual virtues.

Opponents of school choice have successfully dubbed private education a “boutique” education for the rich and therefore dispensable. The dark truth is that without public assistance, that’s exactly what private schools may become.

The Tuition Vise

Financial pressures have driven private school tuitions up steeply, at more than twice the rate of other educational institutions over the past 30 years. Notwithstanding, 78 percent of private schools still operate on just half of the roughly $7,000 public schools receive per student.

Most of the cost increases can be attributed to increases in salaries. With fewer and fewer religious vocations, lay people now shoulder 93 percent of the teaching burden at Catholic schools, and, of course, require larger salaries. Even so, private school teachers earn from $10,000 to $20,000 less on average annually than they could in public schools. If salaries continue to rise so that private schools can retain good teachers and attract new ones, will parents balk at the higher tuitions? Will some schools be forced to close?

The trend has already begun in Catholic education. As a percentage of all private elementary schools, the number of Catholic schools has declined from 88 percent in 1960 to just 45 percent in 1995. In 1961, 54 percent of Catholic children attended parochial school for some or all of their education; now the figure is a poor 20 percent. During that same period, the number of Catholic elementary school students fell from 4.3 million to 1.9 million. The trend slowed some with the influx of the baby boomers’ children, but in 2000-2001, 61 Catholic schools nationwide were still forced to close their doors or otherwise curtail operations.

Parents in urban dioceses worry most about school “consolidations”—the practice of closing some schools to make others financially viable. Catholic education in the inner city has been on a steady decline over the past ten years; 441 inner-city Catholic schools have closed. And enrollment in the 20 largest U.S. dioceses has declined by half a million, to its current level of 800,000, over the past 15 years.

It’s not that there isn’t a demand for Catholic schools: 44 percent have waiting lists. When the Children’s Scholarship Fund, a private charity, made 40,000 partial tuition scholarships in 1999 to help low-income parents send their children to private schools, it had to turn away 1.2 million applicants. No, the problem is that few low- and middle-income families can afford even modestly priced schools. Catholic school students thus tend to come increasingly from more advantaged suburban families. The real problem is that current tuitions, even when subsidized by parishes and dioceses (and generosity has its limits), can only be stretched so far because tuitions have risen faster than dioceses and parishes can find the money to offer financial aid to offset the costs. Already, financial aid averages some $1,500 of the $3,500 it costs to educate an elementary school student in a Catholic school. And religious schools, which account for 87 percent of all private education, will feel these pressures most acutely. They are frequently the only alternative many parents have to failing public schools in America’s inner cities, since high-end private schools are usually far beyond their means. The only way to reverse this trend is to change the widespread perception that most private schools are elite academies for the rich.

Private Schools, Public Benefits

School choice is not about punishing public schools; it’s about rewarding private schools. Private schools serve a genuine public good; the evidence from Catholic education alone is stunning. Despite admitting most who apply, Catholic high schools graduate 95 percent of their students, compared with just over 66 percent in public schools. And it’s not because academic standards at Catholic schools are lower. In study after study, Catholic school students outperform their public school peers. Government surveys consistently show that fourth- and eighth-grade Catholic school students do better in mathematics, science, reading, and social studies than their public school peers.

Catholic schools also perform miracles in inner cities. The dropout rate among black inner-city Catholic school students is a mere 5 percent, compared with 17 percent at public schools. And inner-city minority students who graduate from a Catholic high school are three times more likely to get a college degree than those who graduate from public schools.

These positive benefits can be seen starkly in Washington, D.C., where public schools have the highest cost-per-pupil in the nation and among the lowest graduation rates and student achievement levels. Demographically, D.C. Catholic schools are fairly comparable to public schools: 51 percent of their students are non-Catholic, and 80 percent are black, compared with 88 percent of public school students in the District. And yet when education researcher Kirk Johnson compared math scores, he found that Catholic school fourth- and eighth-graders perform a whopping 72 percent better on average on math tests than their public school peers. Out of all the other factors that could correlate with higher test scores—higher income levels, two-parent families, the mother’s educational attainment—attending a Catholic school made the greatest difference.

Social scientists have been busily trying to explain—or explain away—these differences. One frequent explanation is that Catholic schools have more selective enrollment requirements. But the acceptance rate at Catholic schools averages 88 percent. Besides, inner-city Catholic school officials struggle to fill every seat with children whose parents can afford to pay even modest tuition. They must operate near full capacity to stay solvent.

Catholic schools offer not just the superior academic performance that parents want for their children, but the kind of moral and religious instruction that public education has become allergic to. More than 90 percent of parents believe that schools ought to try to instill the virtues of honesty and moral courage, honor the Golden Rule, teach children to accept people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds, and promote democracy. And 68 percent of parents want schools to teach sexual abstinence. This last desire alone positively horrifies public school officials.

At their best, Catholic schools exist primarily to inculcate the moral and religious teachings of the Catholic faith. At this they are comparatively successful. The U.S. Department of Education reports that Catholic schools have fewer problems with student discipline and school violence. Teachers in Catholic schools, moreover, are more content with their jobs than their public school counterparts. Sociologists agree that Catholic schools create “social capital” that pays academic and social dividends. Catholic Schools and the Common Good, by Anthony S. Byrk, Valerie Lee, and Peter Holland (Harvard University Press, 1993), attributes Catholic school students’ academic success directly to the sacrifices the schools demand of parents’ time, energy, and money.

And then there are the civic dividends. A recent study by David Campbell of Harvard University showed that students in Catholic and other religious schools volunteer more for civic service, score higher on civic knowledge tests, and are even more politically tolerant than their public school peers. Catholic school students top the list as the most civically involved.

But the public seems generally oblivious to these remarkable results. Most American parents generally seem to be satisfied with the free and usually passable education their children receive in public schools. Besides, who wants to pay twice for an education? Their property taxes will help underwrite local public schools whether or not their children attend them.

Which brings up the last and more tangible benefit of private education: For decades, it has subsidized public education. Just last year, private schools cut the cost of public schooling by $40 billion in students taken off the public rolls. Catholic schools alone saved American taxpayers $15 billion.

Public Goods at Home

Home-schooling families, which include many Catholic families, also save public schools money—more than $12 billion each year. For the past 15 years, home schooling has been one of the fastest-growing alternatives to public school: The number has soared some 15 to 20 percent every year since 1985. During the 1999-2000 school year, an amazing 1.7 million children (or roughly 3 percent of the school-age population) received their education at home.

Unfortunately, along with other forms of private education, home schooling has been treated with suspicion and hostility. In 1985, 73 percent of Americans thought it was a bad idea; in 1997, 57 percent still disapproved of it, according to polls administered by Phi Delta Kappan. As recently as 1980, home schooling was actually illegal in 30 states. But thanks to the work of the Home School Legal Defense Association, which mounted court challenges to these restrictions, all states now permit home schools, although they continue to regulate them.

Yet homeschooling has achieved remarkable results. Homeschoolers exceeded the national average on the ACT assessment test in 2000 by almost two full points, a remarkable achievement on a test scaled from one to 36. On the SAT, homeschoolers averaged 568 on the verbal test and 532 in math, well above the national averages of 505 and 514, respectively. And they positively shine in college. The National Center for Home Education reports that homeschooled students were more likely than either public or private Christian school graduates to become campus leaders in college. In 2000, 11 percent of the National Spelling Bee’s contestants were homeschooled—including its top three finishers. The winner, George Thampy, had placed second in the National Geography Bee the week before! And the 2001 National Spelling Bee winner, Sean Conley, who placed second in 2000, was homeschooled up until this past year.

Of course, homeschooling is not imperiled financially, even though most homeschool families scrape by on one income so that the other parent can stay home and teach. But it faces other threats. When the home-schooling population reaches 6 to 10 percent of the U.S. population—which will probably happen during this decade—the enemies of private education may try to regulate or litigate home schools to death. Any successful private school (especially one run by parents themselves) challenges the shibboleth that only public school “experts” can properly educate children.

A small gesture, perhaps, but allowing tax credits and deductions for instructional materials and other costs incurred by homeschooling families can affirm that their efforts provide a welcome public service. And we should not underestimate the important public relations coup of giving home-schooling parents official acknowledgment of their civic achievements.

Millennia of Private Schools

Sadly, at the cusp of a new millennium, we have forgotten the history of the preceding three or four (or perhaps even more) millennia. For thousands of years, no one seriously doubted that private education served the public good, and private education frequently received public money in the form of help from rulers and religious leaders. Without private education, our modern Western civilization would never have developed—and for that we can thank the Catholic Church. For 1,000 years, from the fall of Rome through the Renaissance, nearly all schools in Europe were run either for or by the Church through its priests, nuns, and brothers. Parents gladly entrusted their children’s minds to the institution entrusted to save their souls.

Over the centuries, the Church created an education system that reached even its poorest members. In 853 A.D., the Church insisted that all parishes in Europe provide for elementary instruction, and that cathedrals offer an advanced education in the classical liberal arts. The Third Lateran Council in 1179 decreed that every cathedral must provide a master teacher for children too poor to pay the regular fees. With few exceptions, teachers and tutors in the Middle Ages were local priests and brothers who taught in both religious and secular local schools. Their salaries were subsidized by the local town. These helped to create an unsurpassed community—cohesive, international, cultural, religious, economic, and free from any centralized secular authority.

Sadly, around 1500, this system was nearly destroyed in Europe. Emerging nation-states led by monarchs doubted that private and religious institutions—let alone individual parents—could fashion loyal citizens, so they began creating their own education systems. Private and religious schools were heavily regulated by the state (in France and Germany, even their curricula were dictated by the government), and even outlawed at various times during the 19th century.

Americans, however, were reluctant to follow the European model. Despite early attempts to create a national education system, local communities jealously guarded their control of local schools. For the most part, state and city governments resisted the temptation to run the schools directly. And when state governments did direct public money to education, they often funded religious as well as secular schools. It was not until the end of the 19th century, with the advent of the notoriously anti-Catholic “Blaine Amendments” to state constitutions, that public aid to religious schools became forbidden.

Homeschooling, too, was indispensable to American history as we conquered a continent. Three centuries of American pioneers educated their children at home until they could build towns large enough to support a parson or schoolmaster. Many of our early presidents, including Abraham Lincoln, were homeschooled.

Public support for private schools evaporated with the rise of large-scale public education in America. In fact, the American Catholic school system was founded as a direct response to the anti-Catholic nativism that animated Horace Mann’s “common school” movement that led to the creation of public schools during the 19th century. As early as 1828, Bishop Edward Fenwick of Baltimore described Mann’s common schools as a threat to the faith of Catholic children, “by which their minds are poisoned as it were from their infancy.”

By the beginning of the 20th century, Catholic immigrants had constructed the largest private alternative to public schools in the nation. They proudly built, with their own sweat, bricks, and mortar, thousands of parochial schools as homage to their faith and in thanksgiving for their newfound improved fortunes and security in America.

How Government Can Help

But now the schools our ancestors built are threatened by closure and even the bulldozer. To avert this disaster, American Catholics need to press for fairer public funding of education—a system that would allow parents to recoup some of their own tax money and apply it to the education of their children, and a policy of treating all schools like the public schools they are.

There are several practical ways to achieve this. Each of these options helps parents put home schooling and religious schools within their financial grasp while ensuring that these systems of education retain their unique and valuable identities. If we adopt these proposals, we will honor the Catholic idea that parents have the primary responsibility for directing their children’s education.

Tax credits and deductions. Since all private schooling entails some costs to parents in the form of tuition, transportation, and learning materials, state or federal tax codes could be amended to allow parents either to reduce their taxable income (tax deductions) or benefit directly on their tax bills (tax credits) by the amount of money they spend on school expenses. Only Iowa, Minnesota, Arizona, and Illinois currently allow parents these tax reductions for school expenses. Furthermore, local government could give private school households rebates on their property taxes, which provide some 70 percent of education financing.

Vouchers. Only one state, Florida, and two cities, Milwaukee and Cleveland, have enacted a voucher system that allows parents to send children to any school, public or private, with a government check worth anywhere from $1,000 to $4,000. Legal scholars will continue to argue that vouchers breach the First Amendment’s ban on established churches by allowing religious schools to take government money. But basic fairness and common sense dictate that parents who do not use the public system ought to have back at least some of the money they have paid for educations that they are not using.

Educational savings accounts. One bright spot for private schools in the recently enacted Bush tax relief act was the extension of educational savings accounts (ESAs) to elementary and secondary school expenses such as tutoring, tuition, books, and transportation. Until this year, parents could contribute only $500 per year to their ESAs and could use them only for college-related expenses. The new law raises the maximum annual contribution to $2,000 and allows parents to use the accounts to pay for expenses at any school they choose.

ESAs work much like IRAs; parents make annual tax-deductible contributions to the accounts and withdraw the money when it is needed. ESAs are a small but necessary step toward full public recognition of the public role of private schools. While they produce only small savings and do not put new money in the hands of private schools, they do place private schools on an equal footing with other tax-subsidized “investments,” such as college savings accounts, retirement, and buying a home. Parents who want to contribute something extra to their children’s education should not be penalized by the tax code, and there should be few strings on how parents spend their own money.

Some Catholics fear that once their schools receive government benefits, even by such indirect means as tax credits, they will be forced to become more like public schools, their religious identity wilting under pressure to follow government standards. But the Catholic Church has made it clear that its schools may accept public funding only if the state does not make demands that force parents and schools to abandon their religious duties.

The Second Vatican Council document Gravissimum Educationis (Declaration on Christian Education) states that governments must provide for school choice and “see to it, out of concern for distributive justice, that public subsidies are allocated in such a way that, when selecting schools for their children, parents are genuinely free to follow their consciences.” The government, furthermore, must take steps to accommodate the religious instruction of Catholic children who attend public school. Just as Catholic schools contribute to the common secular good, secular authorities, in recognizing religious freedom and pluralism, must assist Catholic schools in promoting their sacred mission.

Private education has silently served the public good for many millennia, rarely singing its own praises. Without public aid, private education, including Catholic education, will survive in America, but only by serving fewer and fewer of the poor, precisely those who need it most. If religious schools hope to help these families, they will have to mount an offensive for the sake of the common good—but mostly, for the sake of the children.

  • Jason Boffetti

    Jason Boffetti has taught political philosophy, Catholic social thought, and American history and government at Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida and at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He received his Ph.D. in politics in 2003 from the Catholic University of America with a concentration in political philosophy. Boffetti has been a research fellow in education policy at the Faith and Reason Institute and he has worked for the Ethics and Public Policy Center and Policy Review magazine. He has published articles in First Things, Crisis Magazine, the Review of Politics, and the National Catholic Register. He has written on a range of topics including J. R. R. Tolkien

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