This week marks the 45th anniversary of National Catholic Schools Week, which provides a good opportunity to consider the contributions of Catholic schools, as well as the importance of parental choice in education for families of all faiths.
While Catholic schools existed before the American Founding, their expansion corresponded to rising rates of Irish immigration beginning in the 1820s. Unlike today, 19th century public schools were expressly Protestant, and requiring Catholic students to attend led to numerous violent conflicts.
For example, growing ethnic and class animosity erupted in Philadelphia during the Bible Riots of 1844 because Catholic students had to study the King James Bible, which differs from the version they use. Hundreds of people were injured or killed, and two Catholic churches were burned to the ground, along with a seminary for sisters and numerous homes. Likewise, the Eliot School Rebellion struck Boston’s North End in 1959 when hundreds of students protested the brutal beating of ten-year-old Catholic student Thomas Whall by his teacher for refusing to recite the Ten Commandments the way Protestants do.
These and other conflicts convinced Catholics to start their own schools. With nearly 6,400 schools nationwide today, Catholic schools represent the largest segment of faith-based private schools and enroll the largest share of private-school students. And unlike the Hollywood portrayals of palatial private schools on sprawling suburban campuses, 41 percent of Catholic schools are located in urban/inner city areas, and another 21 percent are located in rural areas.
In spite of decreases in the number of Catholic schools over the past 40 years (Table 2), they currently enroll more than 1.8 million students nationwide. Over 20 percent of those students are minorities, and nearly 20 percent of them are non-Catholics.
Catholic school tuition is also far less than what we’re spending on public schools. Nationwide public-school per-pupil spending averages nearly $12,000, and that figure excludes nearly $1,500 in additional capital construction and debt expenditures. Per-pupil spending exceeds the national average in 20 states, including several states where spending is near or north of $20,000 per pupil, such as Connecticut, D.C., New Jersey, New York, and Vermont.
In comparison, the mean tuition at Catholic elementary schools is $4,800 and $11,200 at Catholic high schools. What’s more, virtually all Catholic schools (97 percent) offer tuition discounts. Not paying for these students to attend public schools also saves the public an estimated $21 billion annually.
But the Catholic-school benefits extend far beyond dollars and cents.
Students who attend Catholic schools, disadvantaged and low-income students in particular, have stronger academic achievement, higher high-school and college graduation rates, better wages when they enter the workforce, and higher levels of civic engagement. Catholic schools also provide safer, more disciplined and orderly school environments, which is a leading reason why parents choose private schools for their children.
A growing number of private-school choice programs are also helping parents choose a Catholic school for their children. Currently there are 65 private school educational choice programs in 30 states, including D.C. and Puerto Rico, helping close to 1.4 million students and families. These programs include voucher scholarships, tax-credit scholarships, tax credits and deductions, as well as education savings accounts (ESAs).
Expanding opportunities for more families to access a Catholic education for their children would not only help them, it would also help mitigate conflicts that arise when families’ beliefs are at odds with what’s being taught in public schools.
According to Neal McCluskey, who directs the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom and oversees the Institute’s Public Schooling Battle Map, there have been more than 1,800 local conflicts over curriculum, values, human sexuality, marriage, and basic freedoms since 2005.
If recent events are any indication, such conflicts will continue, affecting families of all faiths.
New York, for example, has imposed a requirement that faith-based schools submit their curricula to local public schools boards for review under the guise of ensuring they’re providing an education that’s “substantially equivalent” to public schools. In reality, the new mandate requires faith-based private schools to provide more secular courses and longer hours than public schools (where only about one out of three students is proficient in math and reading). Although all faith-based private schools are affected, the intended targets of this new regulation are private schools for Orthodox Jews called yeshivas, which offer dual academic and religious instruction that extends the school day by up to 50 percent already. The new mandate dictating additional secular instruction would require limiting religious instructional time, or further extending the school day.
Jewish education leaders are fighting back, confident that the yeshivas parents choose for their children won’t tolerate the state changing their emphasis on the Torah. Likewise, the New York State Council of Catholic School Superintendents informed the state that it rejects the new mandate and has directed all of the 500 diocesan schools it represents “not to participate in any review carried out by local public school officials.”
Over on the West Coast, the California State Board of Education will soon be considering adoption of a controversial Health Education Framework covering instruction about sexual relations, orientation, and gender identity for K-12 students. Recommended books and materials are already creating an uproar, in particular those intended for children as young as five that say there is a spectrum of genders largely determined by how one feels at any given moment. This framework and instruction implemented through it will be exempt from parental notification and opt-out requirements.
New York and California are among the shrinking minority of states without K-12 private-school parental choice programs. And while such programs can’t prevent government’s overreach attempts, they can help free parents whose children would otherwise be trapped.
The United States was founded on the principle of religious freedom for all. When it comes to education, children are not creatures of the state, and their parents, not government, have the unalienable right to direct their education and upbringing without state coercion. All parents should be free to choose the education they think is best for their children based on their beliefs. National Catholic Schools Week celebrates this freedom, which should be equally available to all families.