August 15, 2018

CEP in EdNext: Why Can’t the Middle Class Afford Catholic School Anymore?


A recent study in Education Next evaluates the shift in the haves and have-nots of private education, highlighting the disturbing trend of private schools enrolling students predominantly from high-income families. Authors Richard Murnane and Sean Reardon point to the loss of half of America’s Catholic schools, and their mission to serve low-and-middle-income families, as a huge factor in this trend.

While the authors point to two well-known causes of this decline, increased labor costs at Catholic schools and constraints on diocesan finances generally, the fact that as many people work for Catholic schools today as did in 1960, when there were twice as many schools and three times as many students, points to a serious lack of adaptation on the part of Catholic school leaders.

Murnane and Reardon state that “private [elementary] schools, like public schools, are increasingly segregated by income,” with students from middle-income families half as likely to attend private school now compared to half a century ago. That downward trend comes as private schooling as whole serves a smaller fraction of American schoolchildren – down from 15 percent in 1958 to less than 9 percent as of 2015.

The authors argue that the decline in the number of Catholic schools, especially in urban areas, is a leading factor in the lack of affordable private schooling in the country. “In 1965, 89 percent of American children who attended a private elementary school were enrolled in a Catholic school; in 2013, the comparable figure was 42 percent.” While Catholic schools were losing a huge share of students, average tuition rose from $873 in 1970 to $5,858 in 2010 (in 2015 dollars).

What made Catholic schools increasingly price middle-income families out of a faith-filled education? The obvious explanation is a decline in religious vocations and the subsequent disappearance of low-cost labor from priests, nuns, and brothers on staff. But a fuller explanation shows that decades of Catholic school leaders did not adapt to changing circumstances to ensure that middle-income families would still be able to afford tuition.

The National Catholic Educational Association reports that in 1960, 74 percent of school staff were members of religious orders or clergy; by 2017, religious staff represented less than 3 percent and lay staff now constitute nearly all staff in Catholic schools. Since lay people require a just and living wage, this creates a much more expensive model for Catholic schools. But leaders did not rethink the financial viability of their schools as the labor force completely changed around them. Instead, the numbers show Catholic schools replacing religious with lay staff at a one-for-one ratio over the past fifty years.

From 1960 to 2017, half of Catholic schools closed (12,893 schools were cut to 6,429) and enrollment has been cut nearly by two-thirds (5,253,000 students vs. 1,878,824). Yet during the same period, school staff has remained steady, with 151,902 staff in 1960 and 152,883 in 2017. As Catholic schools were shuttered, families left, and low-cost religious staff disappeared, Catholic school leaders kept staffing levels exactly the same.

Catholic School Staffing and Enrollment Trends.png

Source: National Catholic Education Association

What explains the stable level of staffing at Catholic schools? While each school has its own unique story, one possibility is that schools made an effort to stay competitive with other private schools that advertise their low student-teacher ratios. Many Catholic schools, especially college preparatory high schools and elementary schools in well-off suburbs, have bought into the notion that low student-teacher ratios are necessary to provide a superior education.

But research has revealed a more complicated relationship between class size and educational opportunity. Indeed, some argue that hiring less-effective teachers in an effort to meet class-size benchmarks may backfire.

In the latest rankings of Catholic schools nationwide, none of the top 25 have a ratio above the national average of 17:1, with most in the single digits. These schools are in a positive feedback loop — the lower student-teacher ratios and prestigious college acceptances attract higher-income families, which then increases the demand for lower student-teacher ratios and more prestigious college acceptances.

This loop also has the negative effect of eventually pricing out many potential Catholic school families based only on disposable income, much to the detriment of the true purpose of a Catholic school.

In The Catholic School, authored by the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education in 1977, it is explained that the Church “establishes her own schools because she considers them as a privileged means of promoting the formation of the whole man” and in furtherance of the salvific mission of the Church. In other words, Catholic schools are there to save souls – all souls, not just those with tens of thousands of dollars in expendable income each year.

The Catholic School addresses the very situation outlined in Murnane and Reardon’s study on private schools in the United States. The document highlights the “considerable difficulties” that can arise from “such nearsightedness” as restricting access to the Catholic school to the wealthy before warning:

This situation is of great concern to those responsible for Catholic education, because first and foremost the Church offers its educational service to ‘the poor or those who are deprived of family help and affection or those who are far from the faith‘. Since education is an important means of improving the social and economic condition of the individual and of peoples, if the Catholic school were to turn its attention exclusively or predominantly to those from the wealthier social classes, it could be contributing towards maintaining their privileged position[.] (The Catholic School, 58)

A Catholic school system that is not structured to be accessible to all “runs the risk of giving counter-witness,” according to The Catholic School. And in a country where, as Murnane and Reardon report, “non-Catholic religious elementary schools serve more low-income students than Catholic elementary schools do,” our Catholic schools are missing the mark.

Those responsible for Catholic schools, from the Bishops to school staff to parents and parishioners, must immediately and energetically engage in the public debate around school choice. Public policies that allow low- and middle-income parents to direct the public funding allocated for their child’s education would give Catholic schools an opportunity to again reduce the gap in access to private schools between rich and poor lamented in Murnane and Reardon’s article.

Greg Dolan is Director of Policy and Outreach at Catholic Education Partners.

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