Catholic Schools

Long a major force in American education, new Roman Catholic elementary and secondary schools continue to open in such geographically diverse locations as Atlanta, Minneapolis, and Orlando. At the same time, schools in such places as the Diocese of Brooklyn, the only all-urban diocese in the United States and home to some of the oldest Catholic schools in the nation, continue to close. As a result, the Catholic schools’ share of the nonpublic school population has declined from 53% of all students during the 1991–1992 school year to 46.2% of the total during the 2006–2007 year. Yet, even in light of this steady decline, Catholic schools remain the largest nonpublic school “systems” in the United States. In reality, however, Catholic schools are not so much a system as a loosely linked collection of independent schools. Even as the number of Catholic schools and their market share of the population has declined over the past 40 years, these schools continue to offer an array of options for children from a variety of socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds.

Amid a growing tide of anti-Catholic sentiment, American Catholic bishops, at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884, issued a declaration that had a dramatic impact on the face of education in the United States. In an effort to combat anti-Catholic prejudice, the bishops decreed that within the next two years, a parish school should be built near every church and maintained in perpetuity. The council further ordered all Catholic parents to send their children to the parish school, unless adequate religious training was provided in their schools or elsewhere, or unless alternative schooling was approved by the bishop.

Following the council’s dictate, Catholic education embarked on a period of remarkable growth as the rapidly increasing Catholic immigrant population was augmented by a seemingly endless supply of priests, brothers, and nuns to staff the schools. This growth is reflected in the fact that the group of 200 American Catholic schools that existed in 1860 grew to more than 1,300 in the 1870s. By the turn of the 20th century, there were almost 5,000 Catholic schools in the United States.

In the midst of their growth spurt, Catholic and other nonpublic schools received a major boost from the decision in Pierce v. Society of Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary (1925). In Pierce, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional a statute from Oregon that would have required parents to satisfy the requirements of the state’s compulsory education law by sending their children to public schools, on the basis that the statute deprived the operators of the schools of their right to due process. The Pierce Court further reasoned that while states may oversee such important features as health, safety, and teacher qualifications relating to the operation of nonpublic schools, they could not do so to an extent greater than they did for public schools. The Court also ruled that the law was unconstitutional because it “unreasonably interfere[d] with the liberty of parents and guardians to direct the upbringing and education of children under their control” (268 U.S. 510 at 534–535). Pierce thus served as kind of Magna Carta that protected the right of nonpublic schools to serve the needs of children.

The growth of Catholic education in the United States peaked in 1965, at which time there were 14,296 schools in operation. By 1970, enrollment in Catholic schools totaled 5,253,000 students. However, Catholic schools then entered into a period of steady decline as they experienced a loss of almost 3,000,000 students. As of 2006–2007, their enrollment stands at 2,320,651. As enrollments have declined, Catholic schools have attracted an increasingly smaller market share of Catholic students. This decline can be attributed to a variety of interrelated factors, such as the sharply diminished birth rate, movements of Catholic families to locations where Catholic schools are unavailable, increasing costs of tuition and fees at Catholic schools, greater acceptance by Catholic parents of the public schools, the desire of Catholics to enter the mainstream of society by eschewing Catholic schools, and changing social attitudes.

The decline of Catholic schools can be seen in the fact that as of the 2003–2004 academic year, only 7,955 schools remained in existence. Further, as noted, 22 more Catholic schools in New York’s City’s Brooklyn diocese closed in the fall of 2005, and there were additional unheralded closures in other American dioceses. Moreover, national statistics reveal that while 32 elementary and 4 secondary schools opened in the 2006–2007 year, this gain was more than offset as 202 elementary and 10 secondary schools either consolidated or closed. Also contributing to the decline in the number of Catholic schools is the fact that as of 2006–2007, 13.8% of their students were not members of the Catholic faith, creating a situation that raises questions about how the schools can maintain their religious identities and mission insofar as so many children do not share the Catholic faith.

Aclosely related major factor that had a significant impact on the decline of the number of Catholic schools that began in the late 1960s was the sharp drop-off in the number of women and men who entered the religious life. The dramatic drop in the members of religious orders was accompanied by a necessary increase in the percentage of lay faculty and administrators in Catholic schools. This change had a profound impact on American Catholic education, both financially and in presenting a challenge to the ability of individual schools to maintain their Catholic identities.

From the time of its inception in the United States until the late 1960s, Catholic education was all but the exclusive mission of members of religious orders because of two closely related factors. First, education was a traditional ministry of Catholic religious communities. Teaching orders migrated from Europe to the United States in the 19th century to staff the burgeoning number of Catholic schools. Further, a growing number of religious communities that were established in the United States also focused on teaching as their primary work. Second, given the rapid growth of Catholic education, it would have been all but impossible to have provided appropriate compensation for lay staff. Not surprisingly, the economic necessity presented little alternative but for the religious to continue to staff and operate Catholic schools. This problem was exacerbated by virtue of the fact that Catholic schools continued to charge minimal tuition, did not devise long-term plans for their financial well-being, and did not adjust their plans for such costs until the steady, virtually irreversible, decline was well underway.

Until the mid-20th century, a steady supply of American Roman Catholics entered the religious life. Unfortunately, from the point of view of the schools, this seemingly endless supply of vocations to the religious life began to run dry at the end of World War II. The noted Catholic historian Harold Beutow maintains that the post-1945 decline in the number of women and men who entered the religious life can be attributed to the low birth rate that occurred during the Depression coupled with the toll taken by World War II on religious staff in Catholic schools. In light of the amount of time and education needed to meet the upgraded standards of teacher education, there was an unavoidable lapse of time before the declining ranks of properly prepared religious teachers joined the faculties of Catholic schools. At the same time as members of religious orders were given greater freedom to pursue opportunities of their own interest within the religious life, fewer and fewer turned to education, preferring to work in a variety of other fields involving the social sciences.

The predominance of religious staff members in Catholic schools is reflected in the fact that in 1920, 92% of teachers in Catholic schools were members of religious orders. By 1940, this figure had declined only to 91.2%. There was little appreciable change over the next decade, as the percentage of religious stood at 90.1% in 1950. However, dramatic change was in the offing, as the percentage of lay teachers rose to 26.2% in 1960, 51.6% in 1970, 71.0% in 1980, and 85.4% in 1990. By 2006–2007, lay teachers accounted for 95.6% of teachers in Catholic schools.

Four major challenges, the first three of which are closely intertwined, confront Catholic education as it stands at the dawn of the 21st century. First, Catholic school leaders must address the steady decline that they have experienced in enrollments since the mid-1960s. To date, educational leaders have taken tentative steps to resolving the enrollment crisis by seeking to attract increasing numbers of students from diverse economic, cultural, religious, ethnic, and racial backgrounds, including the disabled. In fact, in 2006–2007, minority children accounted for 18.8% of the Catholic school population, up from 10.8% in 1970.

Asecond issue for Catholic schools is to define their Catholic character so as to maintain their unique identity at a time when increasing numbers of their students are not active members of the Catholic Church. This is an especially challenging task for the many Catholic schools located in inner-city neighborhoods where populations are largely not Roman Catholic.

Third, Catholic schools must find a way to remain a financially viable option for parents at a time of rising costs associated with operating schools. In 2006–2007, the average tuition was $2,607 in Catholic elementary schools (with actual costs of $4,268). Further, the first- year tuition in Catholic secondary schools in 2006–2007 of $6,906 (with actual costs of $8,743) is undoubtedly daunting for many families. On the one hand, Catholic schools maintain a commitment to serving the poor, many of whom cannot afford to pay tuition. On the other hand, as staff in Catholic schools seek to earn living wages, educational leaders must seek to find ways of raising sufficient funds without driving the cost so high that even more families leave Catholic schools.

In light of the lack of qualified educators, a fourth challenge for Catholic school leaders is identifying and preparing a new generation of staff for their schools. As salaries remain low and the hours relatively long, leaders must find ways of ensuring a steady supply of qualified and dedicated educators who can staff the schools.

Having had a successful past, Catholic schools face something of an uncertain future. However, even as they face uncertainties, it is likely that they will continue to make meaningful contributions to American education for many years into the future.

Charles J. Russo

See also Nonpublic Schools; Pierce v. Society of Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary; State Aid and the Establishment Clause

Further Readings

  • Buetow, H. A. (1970). Of singular benefit: The story of Catholic education in the United States. New York: Macmillan. 
  • Convey, J. J. (1992). Catholic schools make a difference: Twenty-five years of research. Washington, DC: National Catholic Education Association. 
  • Greeley, A. M., McGready, W. C., & McCourt, K. (1976). Catholic schools in a declining church. Kansas City, MO: Sheed and Ward. 
  • McDonald, D. (2007). United States Catholic elementary and secondary schools 2006–2007: The annual statistical report on schools, enrollment and staffing. Washington, DC: National Catholic Education Association. 
  • Newman, A. (2005, Feb. 10). Diocese to close 22 schools in Brooklyn and Queens. New York Times, p. A 23. 
  • Zehr, M. A. (2005, Dec. 6). Evangelical Christian schools see growth. Education Week, pp. 1, 17. 

Legal Citations

  • Pierce v. Society of Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, 268 U.S. 510 (1925).