Contemporary Issues Catholic Schools Essay

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Contemporary Catholic schools face major challenges at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the most basic being money—or lack of it. This is particularly true in the urban areas where, in the decade between 1986 and 1996, the number of Catholic elementary schools declined from a total of 3,424 to 3,139, about 8.3 percent; their suburban counterparts dropped from 2,232 to 2,150, a decrease of almost 3.75 percent. The number of urban secondary schools declined from 750 to 613, whereas suburban secondary schools recorded a smaller loss, decreasing from 420 to 413.

The situation has grown worse since then, as the recent announcement by the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) revealed. In the 2004–2005 academic year, 173 Catholic schools, many in urban areas, were either closed or consolidated, constituting a decline of 2.6 percent, due to rising costs, changing demographics, and declining enrollment. Subsequently, the Archdiocese of Chicago announced that 5 of the 23 elementary schools designated for closing would reopen in the fall of 2005 due to positive financial developments. In 2004–2005, 37 new Catholic schools opened, and one third of existing Catholic schools had a waiting list. Many of these schools were in urban areas, such as Chicago, Detroit, Brooklyn, and St. Louis. The preceding year, 123 Catholic schools were closed or consolidated, while 34 new schools were opened. This entry describes the present challenges facing Catholic elementary and secondary schools.

Professional Personnel

Historically, the vast majority of principals and teachers were members of religious orders (nuns or brothers) or clergy. At the elementary level, they were overwhelmingly nuns. In 2004–2005, however, the full-time professional staff at Catholic elementary schools was 95 percent laity and 5 percent religious or clergy.

This change has had several crucial consequences for Catholic schools. The financial burden is obvious; personnel from religious orders contributed services to Catholic schools in the past at little cost. The salaries and benefits for lay teachers, while they pale in comparison to those of public school personnel, nonetheless place a heavy burden on the operation of Catholic schools. In addition, the religious were steeped in the traditions of their respective orders, nurturing the schools’ Catholic identity. Non-Catholic staff, as well as Catholics who have not had the opportunity to grasp the nature of the Catholic school’s religious mission, can put that identity at risk.


Catholic school enrollment in 2004–2005 was 2,420,590 students, of which 1,779,639 were in elementary or middle school. Minority students totaled 655,949, or 27.1 percent of the total, and 328,778, or 13.5 percent of the enrollment, were non-Catholics. The presence of non-Catholics, or Catholic children whose families are not members of the parish, can lead to difficulties with the traditional parish support of such schools. Further, some sources within the Catholic Church have questioned the schools’ mission as well as the allocation of resources to schools in the inner cities, especially when a considerable number of the students are not Catholic.

Catholic schools, especially at the elementary level, have the well-earned reputation for educating the poor. Recent statistics point out that the increasing costs of tuition have led to a changed student population, economically speaking. For instance, in 1992, 5.5 percent of students in attendance at Catholic high schools were from the lowest socioeconomic quartile, while in 1972 that population was 12.3 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage from the upper quartile had risen from 29.7 percent to 45.8 percent. This change has led some to label Catholic schools as “elitist.”

Financial Support

Financial problems have without question been the major factor in the decline of Catholic school attendance. The support of the parish, combined with the low-cost service of the religious faculty, at one time covered all or nearly all of the costs to the parish elementary school. In 2000–2001 parish support made up 24.1 percent of the total cost per student. Tuition exceeded parish subsidies as the major source of support by 1985–1986. Help is desperately needed.

Some have looked to publicly funded vouchers, which give parents money and let them choose which school their children will attend. Ruled constitutional in 2002 by the U.S. Supreme Court in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, vouchers face major political battles across the land. Voucher programs exist in various forms in Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Washington, D.C., to name leading examples. In January 2006, vouchers were ruled unconstitutional at the state level in Florida. The impact of this decision may well adversely affect the future of vouchers across the nation.

In thirty-eight states, legislation along the lines of the nineteenth-century Blaine Amendment, which prohibits state aid for religious purposes, is a major obstacle to the school choice cause. Teacher unions are in the forefront of the opposition to vouchers; parental groups are among their strongest supporters. Proponents argue that parents, not the government or educational personnel, are the primary educators of their children; the government should support parents’ choice of schools for their children, a choice not viable for poor families without the voucher. There is a concern, however, that increased government involvement in the operation of Catholic schools through vouchers or other means might lessen, or even destroy, their autonomy of operation or their Catholic religious identity.

Privately funded vouchers are another means of support for Catholic schools. The Children’s Scholarship Fund (CSF) was started in 1998. In 2004–2005, CSF partnered with thirty-four organizations across the country, and together they have provided scholarships to low-income families that have enabled thousands of those families to select a private or parochial school. In 2004–2005 alone, CSF spent or granted $17 million on scholarships, and the partners will spend another $11 million of locally raised money. Parents Advancing Choice in Education (PACE) in Dayton, Ohio, is one of these local partners. Scholarships to the children are determined by some combination of family size and income, on the one hand, and the school’s tuition; the family pays some portion of the tuition; donors, large and small, contribute to the various funds. Other agencies that are independent of CSF, such as the Big Shoulders fund in Chicago, also provide scholarship money to qualified children.

Endowment efforts, especially at the secondary level, have provided a growing source of income. In 1997–1998, for instance, 57.7 percent of Catholic high schools had a full-time endowment director.

Elementary schools, as they become less affiliated with parishes, will likely follow the lead of secondary schools in seeking alternate sources of revenue, including endowments and private vouchers.

The role of the laity in Catholic educational affairs will likely grow with the shrinking number of priests and the diminishing parish support of elementary schools. Catholic boards of education, at the diocesan, local, and school levels, have become realities since the 1960s. Based in part on the right and responsibility of the laity to participate in the activities of the Church by virtue of their baptism, these boards have assumed policy making, as well as consultative and advisory roles.

New Strategies

Several recent developments merit mention. One is the founding of new forms of Catholic schools. Perhaps the best known of these are the Cristo Rey high schools and the Nativity middle schools. Begun in Chicago in 1997 for Hispanic/Latino youth, Cristo Rey schools combine work and study and are supported by a combination of donations, tuition, scholarship, and financial aid. Founded by the Jesuit order, The Cassin Foundation has been crucial to their existence. The concept has been replicated by other religious orders, such as the Christian Brothers and Daughters of Charity. In January of 2006, eleven Cristo Rey schools had an enrollment of 2,449, and three more were scheduled to open in the fall of 2006. In addition, as of January 2006, there were forty-three Nativity middle schools in operation, with a reported enrollment of 2,950, 56.1 percent African American and 28.1 percent Latino. About 90 percent of these students qualify for the federal government free/ reduced lunch program. Seven more schools are being developed.

There are other institutional developments. The National Association of Private Catholic and Independent Schools (NAPCIS) was founded in 1995. In 2004–2005, they counted fifty-seven institutions in twenty-eight states. They are described as “independent schools in service to the Church.” NAPCIS itself is advertised as “an accreditation, teacher certification and support organization for independent Roman Catholic schools.”

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, homeschooling was growing about 7 percent per year. Estimates range from 1.1 million to 2.1 million students home schooled in 2002–2003, certainly including some Catholic youth. The Seton Home Study School in Virginia offers a wide variety of services to aid parents in carrying out their educational responsibilities.

Finally, Catholic schools have been the recent beneficiaries of dedicated young Catholics who have volunteered their professional services for a specified time period to underresourced Catholic schools. Prepared to teach at twelve Catholic universities in the nation in 2004–2005, these young people live in a community, take part in a communal spiritual life, and participate in professional development activities while teaching.

Beset with serious challenges, Catholic schools are truly at a crossroads.


  1. Baker, D. P., & Riordan, C. (1998). The “eliting” of the common American Catholic school and the national education crisis. Phi Delta Kappan. 80(1), 16–23.
  2. McDonald, D. (2004). Annual report on Catholic elementary and secondary schools: United States Catholic elementary and secondary school statistics 2003–2004. Available from
  3. Riordan, C. (2000). Trends in student demography in Catholic secondary schools, 1972–1992. In J. Youniss & J. J. Convey (Eds.), Catholic schools at the crossroads: Survival and transformation (pp. 35–54). New York: Teachers College Press.
  4. Savage, F. X. (2004). Socioeconomic status (of students). In T. C. Hunt, E. A. Joseph, & R. J. Nuzzi (Eds.), Catholic schools in the United States: An encyclopedia (pp. 613–615). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
  5. Walch, T. (1996). Parish school: American Catholic parochial schools from colonial times to the present. New York: Crossroad Herder.
  6. Youniss, J., & Convey, J. J. (Eds.). (2000). Catholic schools at the crossroads: Survival and transformation. New York: Teachers College Press.

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