Why Are Catholic Schools Closing?
“CRISIS” is the word that most often appears in describing the condition of Roman Catholic schools in the United States. Authorities inside and outside the Church are convinced that this school system is now in grave trouble.
Their concern is understandable, for the problem is immense. The Church’s network of schools in the United States is by far the largest private church-connected school system in the world. About four and a half million students are enrolled in its elementary and secondary schools.
During just three years ending in 1970 a total of 877 (7 percent) of these Catholic schools shut down. And the situation shows no sign of letting up. Press reports such as the following regularly appear:
“Detroit Archdiocese to Shut 56 Schools.”
“Diocese in Colorado to Close 12 Schools.”
“Buffalo Diocese Will Close 10 Schools.”
More than Catholics are affected by these actions. Large numbers of extra students—over 500,000 in two recent years alone—have poured into public schools. To care for this, more tax money is needed.
So, non-Catholic education and civic officials, as well as average taxpayers, are asking, Why are the Catholic schools closing? To help answer that question, some background information is necessary.
How the Catholic School System Works
There are basically two school systems in the United States. One is a public, tax-supported system. Alongside it, private schools, both religious (often called parochial) and otherwise, have been allowed to operate. Why this separate system?
It has largely been motivated by religious fears. In the last century the public-school system was considered Protestant-oriented. Officially the United States has never allowed any state religion to be taught in its public schools, as is done in some countries. However, it was thought that Catholic children, a minority, had to confront forces within the public schools that were contrary to their faith. Therefore, the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884 decreed that a parochial school was to be constructed near every parish as a way of withstanding the “noxious influences of popularized religion.”
Today, most of the curriculum in Catholic schools is virtually a carbon copy of that found in public schools. Nevertheless, the New Catholic Encyclopedia (1967) admits that one of the things “basic to this curriculum at all times [has] been instruction in the truths of faith.”
Through most of its history the system has had careful religious oversight. A Catholic bishop is head of all schools in his diocese; he appoints a superintendent to work closely with him. Immediate supervision of each school, however, is delegated to the parish pastor and to a principal, generally a member of the school’s staff who belongs to a religious order. Similarly, members of such religious orders, “brothers” and nuns, have done most of the teaching. But why, after almost a century of operation, is the system in trouble?
Primary Cause of the Closings
To most observers there is one immediate problem: money. Basically each school has always been financed by local parish funds and by tuition. But now, according to Time magazine, “the Roman Catholic school system in the U.S. is in serious, even desperate financial trouble.”—March 28, 1969.
Expenses are skyrocketing. All schools, including the public systems, are confronted by mounting costs for new buildings, equipment and training aids. Teachers’ salaries greatly expanded during the last decade. However, the rising expenses have hit the Catholic schools with even greater impact. How?
Here is the core of the matter:
“The vanishing nun is the central cause of the financial crisis faced today by the Catholic school system.
“Costs are soaring in all school systems, but the Catholics also are losing the backbone of their system—the dedicated sisters and brothers of religious orders who work for next to nothing.”—Burlingame (California) Advance-Star, December 19, 1970.
The ranks of these low-pay religious teachers are steadily thinning. All together, there was a 12-percent drop in their number between 1967 and 1970. Many have quit to marry; some have turned to new fields of endeavor. At the same time, fewer persons are becoming teaching nuns and priests.
In other cases, states have stiffened the requirements for nuns to teach. Also, it appears that religious orders, seeing church schools weakening, have assigned more of their personnel elsewhere. Each of these moves has meant fewer low-pay teachers. How is this gap filled?
With lay teachers. But they must be hired at three or more times the salary paid to a nun or priest. And just supplying replacements has not been enough in recent years, as more teachers have been needed.
Since the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957, bringing increased emphasis on science in U.S. schools, more science teachers have been required. These have needed costly laboratories. Modern education methods break large classes into small ones—more classes mean more teachers. All factors considered, in just two years the average cost to educate a Catholic elementary-school pupil has risen over one-third. Secondary-school costs have risen over one-fourth. This sudden crushing burden on school budgets has forced many to close their doors.
Can Each Parish Supply More Money?
It is reported that parish moneys from fund-raising campaigns and donations cannot handle the rising expenses. In 1970, parish funds reportedly covered only about one-half of the elementary- and one-fourth of secondary-school costs. But in the last five years, for every sixteen cents that parish income is said to have increased, school costs have soared seventy cents.
Nor can parents constantly be asked to pay higher tuition. Increasingly, the well-to-do pull their children out of city parochial schools and move to the suburbs. When tuition is elevated, the poorer people are left behind to pay the increases. Tuition is therefore higher in some low-income parishes than in wealthier ones! Schools then shut down as poorer parents are compelled to move their children to public schools.
As Catholic education authorities C. A. Koob and R. Shaw put it:
“Tuition and fees, along with donations, place the burden on a particular group of Catholics who in the nature of things are least able to bear it.”—S.O.S. for Catholic Schools, 1970, p. 66.
Understandably, churchmen are viewing the whole parochial financial structure with suspicion. Says one:
“The present system of financing Catholic school education is unbelievably archaic, obsolete, and inefficient.”—Catholic Education Faces Its Future, Neil G. McCluskey, S.J., 1969, p. 264.
More than Money Involved
However, the problem goes deeper than finances. Other factors intensify the money situation.
First, there is not the strong support for the Church that once existed. The disputes after the Second Vatican Council have made some wary of the Church and its schools. Consequently, many parents no longer send their children to those schools.
Additionally, the very reason for the schools’ existence seems to be gone. Anti-Catholic feelings may have been strong in previous years, but in 1960 a Catholic, John F. Kennedy, was elected president of the United States. Much prejudice had obviously vanished. So, parents reason, why bear the double expense of sending children to parochial schools while being taxed for public ones?
Also, there is lack of clear leadership for the schools. As Koob and Shaw confess:
“Not all the problems of Catholic education would magically vanish if large additional sums of money became suddenly available. Money would . . . [not] do away with the question of goals and priorities.”—P. 61.
In other words, if money were available, Who would spend it? How would it be spent? Would the Catholic school stress serving the cities’ poor and undoing racial imbalance? Or, would it move out into the suburbs? Who would decide curriculum?
There are efforts to solve such matters; but there is little unity. Thus these churchmen also say:
“Despite lingering notions that the Church is a monolith, a whole chorus of voices today ‘speak’ for Catholic education, and often each one seems to be saying something different.”—P. 26.
Among those “voices” are the bishops and pastors, who, though in charge of the schools, often lack training in the field of education.
Also, in recent years “boards of education” have been speaking in behalf of Catholic education. These boards basically seek to draw on experienced laymen in the parish or diocese to work with the pastor or bishop. But this union has not produced decisive leadership. Concerning these boards the Catholic Commonweal magazine of April 3, 1970, said:
“One senses that the much-talked-about school boards have been largely ineffectual in basically altering priorities. School boards proliferate; policy initiatives seem as inscrutable as ever. The boards really do not have much authority.”
These factors aggravate the money crisis. However, some argue that the schools’ problems are not as serious as press reports would indicate.
Are the Shutdowns Only Consolidations?
Shutdowns, some are saying, are simply consolidations, a merging of schools. After ten schools in Buffalo, New York, closed, a spokesman said: “We are closing buildings, not schools. It is a consolidation. Other Catholic schools will be able to accommodate all of the students.” In some cases this is true, but not in most. Consider, for instance, Pueblo, Colorado.
There were no mergers in Pueblo when all twelve Catholic schools closed and over 2,600 pupils were expected to turn to the public system. Consolidation is the exception, not the rule.
What About the Future?
Money remains the immediate problem. Where will future funds come from?
Largely, from federal and state governments, churchmen have been hoping. These have already supplied some assistance. Federal government legislation, The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, allowed for funds to help both public- and private-school children from low-income families.
Various states have provided such things as free bus transportation, secular textbooks and some salary subsidies for parochial schools. However, the United States Supreme Court ruled on June 28, 1971, that many such state provisions were unconstitutional. Only further legal proceedings will determine if any state programs may be allowed to stand.
In any event, the closing of Catholic schools is more than a financial problem. Rather, it is one more indication of the growing lack of interest many Catholics have in their church and its institutions.