Covid-19 is killing Catholic schools — and hurting the minorities that attend them

By Kathleen Parker
(Originally published in the The Washington Post on 6/12/20, reprinted by permission of the author)

Among the many consequences of our covid-19 economy is the likely closing of dozens of Catholic schools that serve minority students in vulnerable, underserved communities.

The National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) estimates that at least 100 such schools won’t reopen in the fall — or probably ever. Their fortunes and those of their students rely heavily upon charitable donations, which have fallen off in the months since stay-at-home orders went into effect. Without those funds, the schools can’t offer scholarships to families that otherwise couldn’t afford tuition. Twenty percent of students in the nation’s 6,000 Catholic schools are minorities, including Hispanics, African Americans and Asians.

The numbers are much higher in what’s called the Partnership Schools, a network of nine Catholic schools in Harlem and the South Bronx in New York and in Cleveland. In addition to the coursework usually found in public schools, schools in the partnership stress four core values — integrity, humility, hard work and service.

Enrollees at these nine schools are 67 percent Hispanic and 31 percent African American. Of these students, 85 percent have received scholarships.

The average yearly tuition cost of a Catholic school is $4,800 for elementary school and $11,200 for high school, according to the NCEA. Right off, it would seem that only the rich or the very poor can afford a Catholic education these days. The middle class — too rich for financial aid and too strapped for full tuition — is out of luck.

This wasn’t always the case. Several decades ago, almost anyone could attend a Catholic school, in part because, at the time, there were many more schools. In 1960, the United States boasted 13,000 Catholic schools compared to just 6,000 or so today. And, in 1965, of elementary-age children attending private school, 89 percent attended a Catholic school. But, times change, and other private schools emerged virtually everywhere.

The numbers are much higher in what’s called the Partnership Schools, a network of nine Catholic schools in Harlem and the South Bronx in New York and in Cleveland. In addition to the coursework usually found in public schools, schools in the partnership stress four core values — integrity, humility, hard work and service.

Enrollees at these nine schools are 67 percent Hispanic and 31 percent African American. Of these students, 85 percent have received scholarships.

The average yearly tuition cost of a Catholic school is $4,800 for elementary school and $11,200 for high school, according to the NCEA. Right off, it would seem that only the rich or the very poor can afford a Catholic education these days. The middle class — too rich for financial aid and too strapped for full tuition — is out of luck.
This wasn’t always the case. Several decades ago, almost anyone could attend a Catholic school, in part because, at the time, there were many more schools. In 1960, the United States boasted 13,000 Catholic schools compared to just 6,000 or so today. And, in 1965, of elementary-age children attending private school, 89 percent attended a Catholic school. But, times change, and other private schools emerged virtually everywhere.

Adaptation is key to survival. Catholic schools failed to adapt to the loss of a cheap labor force as the number of young priests and nuns began to fall. In 1960, 74 percent of parochial school staff were members of religious orders or clergy. By 2017, with half of all Catholic schools closed, less than 3 percent of staff were clergy, replaced by lay staff who require a reasonable salary. That meant increasing donations or increasing tuition — and often both. Even when doing God’s work, the cost of doing business is passed on to the consumer.
Perhaps, too, some of the closings in recent years are related to the sexual abuse scandals, though as mentioned, clergy are largely absent from schools.

Nevertheless, the merits of a Catholic education are self-evident. Five of the nine Supreme Court justices attended Catholic schools. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) graduated from an all-girls Catholic high school in Baltimore, which is set to close June 30.

Overall achievement in Catholic schools is higher on average than in public schools and the achievement gap between minorities and others is smaller. Moreover, minority students at Catholic schools are more likely to graduate from high school and college than their peers in public school.

Like most collateral damage from the pandemic, private-school closings have a domino effect. As students migrate, public schools are forced to pick up the slack. According to EdChoice.org, a nonprofit organization created to advance school choice, private schools save taxpayers tens of billions of dollars annually. This unseen windfall could gradually become a public burden as private-school tuitions become increasingly out of reach and a new wave of students enters public schools.

Parents whose children are already in public schools may have little sympathy for others lucky enough, in some cases, to literally draw a winning lottery ticket. One may reasonably argue that a public education ought to be good enough to eliminate the attraction to private schools, especially religion-based institutions. But we know that parents’ real-life choices are rarely this clear-cut and, for many children, public schools offer a less-than-ideal option.

Whatever one’s biases or misgivings, there’s no question that Catholic schools have been bridges of learning to vulnerable communities. St. Anthony High School in Jersey City, N.J., which closed in 2017, was one of those bridges.

In “The Miracle of St. Anthony,” author Adrian Wojnarowski tells the story of famed basketball coach Bob Hurley, whose teams sent more than 150 players to Division I basketball programs, all on full scholarships. One of the school’s graduates, Hank Rivers, is quoted in the book: “If I never met Coach Hurley, I don’t know where I’d be. Actually, I do know: either coming or going to prison. Or I’d be dead.”

As celebrities busy themselves with virtue signaling, making videos of themselves professing to fight racism, now seems an opportune time to consider donating to some of these schools so that minority children can receive a quality education while absorbing values that will contribute more to racial equality and harmony than all the selfies and proclamations social media can record.

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