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Two Ways to Save Catholic Schools

This op-ed appeared originally in the New York Daily News.

Last week, the Archdiocese of New York, covering Manhattan, the Bronx, Staten Island and suburban counties, announced that 20 of its schools will not reopen in the fall. This brings the total to nearly 90 schools in the archdiocese that have closed over the past decade.

Sadly, New York is not alone. Since the nationwide coronavirus schools shutdown, more than 100 private schools have made the difficult decision to shutter their doors permanently. Many more will undoubtedly follow, particularly if in-person instruction does not resume in the fall.

Of course, the challenges facing Catholic schools in general and urban Catholic schools in particular are well known. But what was at one time merely a vague threat has become an existential crisis that demands immediate action.

And while it would be easy to conclude that a new wave of closures is the unfortunate but inevitable result of a global health crisis, the truth is that we can make policy choices right now to ensure this wave of shutdowns is our last.

First, leaders in Washington are actively debating whether private and Catholic schools should receive a fair share of the billions of dollars in federal COVID relief money allocated to schools. The necessary answer is yes.

This is important not just because it is fair, but because to deny private schools an equitable share of COVID relief will end up hurting students, teachers and families when they can least afford it.

Take, for instance, New York. The 20 Catholic schools that will close because of the COVID crisis serve nearly 3,500 students. Given that current per-pupil spending in New York is roughly $23,000 per year, these 20 New York Catholic schools saved taxpayers approximately $80 million a year.

More than half of these closing Catholic schools are located in some of the most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods in New York City — communities where critics complain that public school classrooms are already too overcrowded to implement recommended social-distancing guidelines, and neighborhoods that have been hit harder by COVID than anywhere in the country.

Yet the immediate support needed to sustain struggling Catholic schools is far less than what public schools will need to accommodate thousands of new students.

There is precedent for sharing COVID relief with religious organizations. Given the government-mandated shutdowns, parishes and private schools experienced an immediate revenue collapse that public schools did not experience. Short-term support was provided through the Payroll Protection Program. The same should happen with COVID school relief.

Second, as advocates in New York have fought to expand parent choice, they have made little progress in part because New York is one of 37 states whose constitutions include anti-Catholic “Blaine Amendments,” which explicitly prohibit state money from flowing to religious institutions. This month, however, the Supreme Court effectively gutted Blaine Amendments by ruling that states cannot deny public funding for services solely because of religion.

That means that choice advocates in New York have a unique opportunity to enact legislation that would give parents the option to attend private and religious schools with state support if they wish.

At the same time, as Catholic leaders, we cannot sit by and wait for state funding to save our schools. Diocesan leaders across the country should continue to look to seed, support and expand innovation across the sector. Models like the Cristo Rey High School network, Seton Education Partners and our own Partnership Schools have found ways to provide targeted turnaround and fundraising support for urban Catholic schools to ensure all families have authentic choice.

Done right, this combination of immediate federal relief, state policy change, and local innovation would both help sustain Catholic schools now struggling to serve the state’s most vulnerable communities and would give parents authentic educational choice.

For nearly two centuries, thriving neighborhoods in the city have been anchored by Catholic schools; investing in them today will ensure that they continue to transform lives in the city for generations to come.