But this Time article misses much of the point of the story of the decline and fall of the American Catholic school:
Do you notice how the Time article shifts from talking about the Catholic school to talking about the urban Catholic school, giving the impression that the problem here is due to white flight and that it is primarily an inner-city problem?
Of that, there is no doubt. Nearly 1 in 5 Catholic schools in the U.S. has closed its doors this decade. To non-Catholics, this may not appear to be something worth worrying about. But parochial schools are one of the largest (if not the largest) alternatives to the American public-education system, and their steady decline inordinately affects urban low-income minorities who would otherwise be left at the mercy of public schools that have proven incapable of educating them.
Many Catholic schools, however, are following in the steps of their public brethren and trying to survive by changing the way they do business. Mandating that students work to pay off tuition, forging partnerships with philanthropists and foundations, converting to charter schools, and taking control away from pastors and putting it in the hands of lay experts — these are just some of the ways dioceses (essentially a church district) are hoping to stem the school-closure tide, which has reached worrisome proportions in America's urban areas, where close to half of all parochial schools are located.
"We have no choice," says the Rev. Timothy Scully, CSC, founder of the University of Notre Dame's Alliance for Catholic Education, a sort of Catholic version of Teach for America, which trains college grads to work in underserved parochial schools. "We either reinvent ourselves or I don't see how we don't ultimately disappear from America's inner cities. The model upon which we were founded was so different, both from a cost and supply side."Enrollment in Catholic schools peaked in the 1960s, when more than 5 million students attended nearly 13,500 parochial schools. Since then, both enrollment and the number of schools have dropped by more than half. Why? For starters, the number of priests, nuns and brothers able to teach for free has plummeted. In 1950, 90% of the teachers in Catholic schools came from religious orders; by 1967, the figure was 58%; today, it is 4%. This shift has meant that schools have had to raise tuition in order to pay more lay teachers. Meanwhile, increasingly middle-class Irish and Italian families started moving to the suburbs, leaving urban Catholic schools to cater to a majority of lower-income blacks and Hispanics. Less money coming into the church has led to even higher tuition, fewer students who can afford to attend the schools and the potential for even more closures.
It's not, though. According to this, in 1965 about half of the Catholic families in America sent their children to Catholic schools, while today only about 15% do. Such a staggering decrease has not only impacted urban schools; suburban and rural areas have seen closures or school consolidations as well. If "white flight" were the root cause of school enrollment decreases, we would expect that enrollment would merely have shifted away from urban Catholic schools and to suburban or rural ones. We would not expect that only 15% of Catholic families would educate their children in Catholic schools.
I think there are two main reasons for the decline and fall of American Catholic diocesan schools. The first reason, economics, is the one that gets talked about all the time. Without all those religious men and women teaching for very little pay, the costs of Catholic school tuition skyrocketed; it has become cost-prohibitive in many parts of the country to pay for Catholic education. Just for illustration, a parish school near us charges the following: $4930/year for one student, $8550/year for two students, and $11,720/year for three (I don't know what happens if a large family with more than three children in school at a time wishes to apply). The local Catholic high school charges more than $10,000 per year per student in tuition and fees.
Very few families with one full-time, stay-at-home parent can afford such costs as these. But when I was in Catholic schools in the 1970s and 1980s, fewer and fewer of my peers had a stay-at-home mom. By the time I was in seventh or eighth grade, a classroom discussion of "what our parents did" revealed that there were only four or five of us left whose mothers didn't work full-time outside the home, placing the children in day care after school (or all day, for younger siblings). The only way Catholic education has been affordable for many for the last thirty years or so has been for two working parents to pay for it.
If educations at diocesan Catholic schools were producing many saints, the costs to the family of having two working parents, as well as the costs in general, might be worth paying. But that leads to the other reason why Catholic education is failing: it is failing because it is faithless.
Sure, Catholic schools still teach religion class (some of them, only a few times a week). But aside from religion class and the occasional school Mass, there is little evidence of Catholicity in many Catholic schools. From my own experience, I recall a "Catholic" teacher in a class misnamed "Health" class, teaching all of us girls--it was an all-girls' school--all about the methods of birth control. When a classmate and I objected, she sneeringly dismissed NFP as "the rhythm method," and implied that people using this method abstained twenty-five days out of thirty; if we had further objections, we could take them up with our religion teacher, as her job was to teach us "health." And that was more than two decades ago.
I could tell many more, similar, stories; readers may have their own to share, as well. But the distinct impression I get these days is that students at Catholic schools end up being, or reverting to, Catholicism in spite of their educations, not because of them. Instead of being challenged to be heroic in the defense of life, for instance, students are told to keep their religious views out of biology class (we wouldn't want to offend the non-Catholic students, don't you know). Instead of being taught the beauty of God's plan for marriage, the students are surreptitiously taught the culture's undermining of that plan, with the blessing of their teachers, many of whom are Catholic dissenters from Humanae Vitae themselves. Instead of being given the fullness of Catholic teaching, the students are taught a sort of bland equivalence so as not to rock the boat of inclusiveness and accommodation. They're not only not being given a faith worth dying for--they aren't even being taught a faith worth living for.
The crisis in Catholic education won't be solved by new boards and groups and committees. It won't be solved by layers of bureaucracy and lay oversight. It won't be solved by initiatives or fund-raisers or cultivating potential benefactors.
It will be solved if, and only if, Catholic education decides to go back to being Catholic.
And until then, we Catholic homeschoolers and other Catholic parents who care about Catholicism will do the best we can to carry the torch and keep the flame of faith alive for the next generations.
UPDATE: Think I'm being too hard on Catholic schools? Larry D has a timely post illustrating that, if anything, I'm not being hard enough on them.