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Turning Catholic Schools’ COVID Enrollment Bump into a Sustained Trend

In 2021, U.S. Catholic schools reported their first enrollment increase in two decades and the largest increase yet recorded by the National Catholic Education Association. That bump—and the pathway for turning it into a trend—is the subject of an issue brief authored by Partnership Superintendent Kathleen Porter-Magee, Annie Smith of the National Catholic Education Association, and Matt Klausmeier. The Manhattan Institute published their analysis today.

The 3.8 percent rise in students attending Catholic schools in the U.S.—an increase of more than 60,000 students in a single year—is notable for several reasons that Kathleen and her co-authors discuss:

  • Catholic schools are seeing their first enrollment increase in over twenty years at a time when public schools are experiencing significant declines.
  • Catholic school enrollment didn’t just rebound after the pandemic; it surged past where enrollment was projected to be if COVID never happened.
  • Two-thirds of the increase was driven by Pre-K enrollment.
  • The weakest increases occurred in the mid-Atlantic region, from New York to D.C.—more evidence that school closures meant to stabilize Catholic school systems instead appear to accelerate enrollment losses.
  • The six states with publicly funded Education Savings Accounts saw increases that were twice as large as those without them.

However promising these gains are, sustaining them is not inevitable. Kathleen and her co-authors suggest several key mindsets and moves that Catholic school supporters must embrace in order to expand the number of students we serve. They highlight the importance of recognizing and acting on the immediate vulnerability Catholic schools have to a decline in the weeks ahead; they suggest exploring different governance models for Catholic schools; and they discuss the role public funding for equitable school choice can play in maintaining the momentum Catholic schools began last year.

“To maintain the trust of those parents and families” who tried Catholic schools for the first time last year, Kathleen and her co-authors suggest, “school leaders can’t simply assume this enrollment bump will continue without reform and creative thinking.”

You can find the complete text of the issue brief on the Manhattan Institute’s website here.