This week is Catholic Schools Week. In Catholic elementary schools, it can feel a lot like homecoming week does in high schools: it may involve both Masses and wacky dress-up days, prayers and celebrations. That has definitely been the case in our schools over the last few days.
It is also an occasion for noting the significance of Catholic schools in the larger landscape of American education. And when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sought to brief Congress on that front this week, they asked Partnership Superintendent Kathleen Porter-Magee to share that message.
If you take nothing else away from our time today, I want to leave you with two things I believe to be true:
First, Catholic Schools have a track record of success that goes back nearly 200 years. And as we consider how we can address the nationwide, post-pandemic student achievement crisis, the system of Catholic schools has the foundational strength and the infrastructure we need to scale quality options for students.
Second, as we continue to unpack the national response to COVID, one clear takeaway is that American schoolchildren need truly diverse options—with funding streams that are far more directly tied to parent feedback. Parents need to be empowered with real options, particularly in moments of crisis.
What the U.S. system of Catholic schools is—and isn't
- Catholic schools are mostly independently operated schools sponsored and run either by a local parish or by a religious order.
- As of last year, there were nearly 6,000 schools serving about 1.7 million students, roughly 15% of whom qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.
- By the numbers, America’s Catholic schools constitute the largest non-public school system in the world. Yet it also operates in a deeply decentralized and community-driven way.
- Between the early 1970s and 2021, more than 4,000 Catholic schools closed—the vast majority of which were K-8 schools in urban areas serving under-resourced communities.
- Of the 1.7 million students in Catholic schools today, roughly two-thirds attend K-8 schools.
- Many Catholic schools serve more non-Catholic students than Catholic students. In our own Partnership Schools in Cleveland, only 9 percent of our students are Catholic. In New York, 53 percent are.
I like to quote the late James Cardinal Hickey, former Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Washington who said: “We educate our students not because they are Catholic, but because we are.” That is particularly true in the urban Catholic schools that serve the most vulnerable students.
Catholic schools stood out in the pandemic.
In March 2020, Catholic schools, particularly those in large urban areas, were among the first to close when the threat of the pandemic loomed large. For instance, the Archdiocese of New York announced its intent to close in March at a time when then-Mayor deBlasio was still saying that public schools would remain open.
Then, they were among the first to reopen in fall, 2020.
Catholic school reopening wasn’t due to a large, centralized decision or push from above. Rather, this was the result of hundreds of local diocesan and school leaders responding to the particular needs of their communities.
While I want to be cautious not to draw a bright causal line, the data from the Spring 2022 NAEP test shows extremely strong performance for students in Catholic schools. On every NAEP test, students in Catholic schools were #1 when compared to the 50 states. That’s even more impressive is that these results held even when disaggregated by subgroup.
A Catholic school education welcomes all and serves them well.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this strong, student-focused and community centered leadership led to significant enrollment gains for Catholic schools.
As the NCEA reported, last year, nationwide Catholic school enrollment increased for the first time in 20 years. This even as public school enrollment took a hit—declining even more significantly in districts that remained closed than in those that were able to open more quickly.
We experienced this demand first-hand across our 11 Partnership Schools, where we saw a 40% increase in enrollment in the first year of the pandemic in Cleveland and an 18% increase across the first and second year in New York City.
Taken together, these data point to two conclusions:
First, that American children are well served when we work to support and sustain a thriving Catholic school sector.
And second, that when parents are given a choice—particularly in times of great need—they seek out Catholic schools.
Ensuring that every parent is empowered with real educational choice
Central to this discussion is the question of whether the government can or should direct scholarship money to parents to use for a faith-based education for their child.
Of course, leaving aside the fact that federal funds do flow to religious schools for a host of reasons—Pell Grants for college students, COVID relief money that we have been so grateful to be included on, and more. But the idea that faith-based schools should be excluded from publicly funded scholarship programs persists—and it is grounded in the idea that public schools are values-neutral.
The reality is quite the opposite.
There is no such thing as a values-neutral school. Every day, schools make decisions about what to teach, how to teach it, and what behaviors to punish or revere. These are fundamentally decisions that are guided by values and that help shape students’ understanding of right and wrong, good and evil.
It’s only very recently that people argued that public schools should be secular. For most of our history, public education was explicitly religious—explicitly Protestant. Children read from the King James version of the Bible; they recited the Ten Commandments.
In fact, the Catholic school system in America exists because Catholic pastors and parents believed that the public school system was openly hostile to their beliefs. This has been a real fight for generations, and the fights today over curriculum and instruction are grounded in the same arguments that led to the creation of the American Catholic school system more than 150 years ago.
Even if they could be, the idea that public schools should be values-neutral is dangerous. Today more than ever, we need schools that do more than impart knowledge and skills to the students they serve; we need schools that form the backbone of communities and that help students develop the habits of good citizenship. And perhaps the only way to do that well is to ground a school community in a clearly defined mission, vision and purpose—something that faith-based schools in general, and Catholic schools, in particular, have been doing for generations.
Publicly-funded scholarships like those our families have access to in Ohio—crucial for expanding parent choice—are only part of the solution to preserving the legacy of Catholic schools. As Catholic school leaders, we need to do our part to think differently about how to support and sustain once-struggling schools in a new era.
But Congress can play a huge part in helping, and we are grateful to you for the work you have already done to support nonpublic schools, particularly in the past three years, and we look forward to working together in the future.