Serving the public interest, an institution struggles in hard times

In 1981, sociologist James S. Coleman made the claim that tuition barriers to private schools are “certainly harmful to the public interest, and especially harmful to the interests of those least well-off.” He was referring particularly to Catholic schools and to his just-completed research identifying the social capital that families invested in Catholic education and the benefits that investment yielded in even the most disadvatanged youth.

Last week, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York announced that it planned to close 27 schools, ejecting 4,700 students. While the New York archdiocese has been aggressively consolidating some schools and converting others into charter schools in recent years, the announcement signals a further strain on a mission-driven style of education that has suffered from more than 1,600 school closings and consolidations nationwide in the last 10 years alone.

Coleman was urging policymakers to consider ways to expand the role of private schools in American public education. While state and locally facilitated vouchers and tuition tax credit plans have helped urban, inner-city families by the hundreds obtain a Catholic education in ways that didn’t exist during Coleman’s time, that has happened in only a handful of regions. Most Catholic schools depend on tuition revenue to stay afloat, and this trend of school closings and enrollment declines threatens the mission of an institution that has long reached out to impoverished neighborhoods. As RiShawn Biddle recently noted on his blog, Dropout Nation, that mission continues today, “with blacks, Latinos, Asians and American Indians making up 26 percent of its students.”

Future posts on this topic will be frequent on redefinED. For now, here’s a brief look at the trends in Catholic education, by the numbers (according to the National Catholic Educational Association):

  • 13: Percentage decline of number of Catholic schools between 2000 and 2010
  • 1,603: The number of schools that were reported closed or consolidated in that time
  • 533,697: The number of students in Catholic schools that declined over the last 10 years
  • 807: The number of schools that closed in the Middle Atlantic and Great Lakes regions alone during the last 10 years
  • 43: Percentage of all Catholic schools that are located in urban and inner-city areas
  • $20.5 billion: Estimated savings to the nation of administering a Catholic education, based on public school costs

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BY Adam Emerson

Editor of redefinED, policy and communications guru for Florida education nonprofit


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