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Want an Educational Advantage for Low-Income Kids? Catholic Schools Have It, Says Urban Institute Research

The Urban Institute published compelling evidence this week of a Catholic school advantage for students from low-income families. At Partnership Schools, we have long held the conviction that Catholic schools have a unique power to advance educational equity; in the Urban Institute’s update, Northwestern Professor David Figlio supplies proof that they do.

Figlio analyzed nationally normed test results for students participating in Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarships, a program that enables families making under 185% of the federal poverty limit to attend private schools of their choice. Over 106,000 students participated in 2020-21. By comparing the performance of students who attended Catholic schools with those who attended other forms of private school through the program, Figlio found:

  • Low-income students attending Catholic schools made greater gains in reading and math than their peers;
  • Those gains remained the same even when controlling for variables like race, family background, and income;
  • The gains were similar for students with extremely low family incomes—below $21,400 for a family of four—and for families with relatively higher incomes—around or above $49,025 for a family of four.
  • Students who attend Catholic schools in the program are more likely to be Hispanic and less likely to be white than those who attend other forms of schools—so these gains are achieved by students who have been historically underserved by other sectors.

Figlio’s data does not indicate how well Catholic school students in the Florida program do relative to their public school peers. He concludes, however, that “this analysis makes clear that a scholarship program that permits students to use scholarships at religiously affiliated schools should include Catholic schools??.”

Partnership Schools came into existence eight years ago to serve precisely the kinds of students Figlio’s analysis profiles: predominantly low-income, mostly non-white, from a myriad of families who just want what wealthier families take for granted: a range of school choices, including faith-based schools, in which to further their dreams for their children. As Figlio’s study demonstrates, those who take educational equity seriously must take Catholic schools seriously.

St. Augustine said that “Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe.” Seeing results like those Figlio shares—and our own Partnership students’ progress, including their success at beating national pre-pandemic averages last year—affirms our faith in Catholic schools as an instrument of equity and social justice. And the findings give dioceses and advocates yet more reason to act vigorously to preserve and support Catholic schools that serve low-income students.

We cannot help but notice the careful language in Figlio’s recommendation when he refers to “a scholarship program that permits students to use scholarships at religiously affiliated schools.” As Carson v. Makin before the Supreme Court this month so vividly illustrates, Maine persists in excluding faith-based schools from public funding while funding other forms of private education. Other states like New York do not support full school choice for low-income students, in part animated by a similar bias.

Meanwhile, children in states like Florida are making demonstrable gains, thanks to their parents’ choice of Catholic schools and the tax credit scholarships that make that choice possible, regardless of their family income. Policy makers in the 18 states that do not yet have school choice programs—and those who resist expansion of existing scholarship programs—would do well to take Figlio’s findings into account.

Professor Figlio’s full study is available here