Every generation lives off the cultural inheritance of its predecessors. Among that inheritance for today’s American Catholics is a network of parochial schools built by their immigrant forebears, which served both to teach the faith and ground the community.

But today, many of those Catholic schools in urban areas are facing a near-fatal financial crisis. As Pope Benedict XVI visits Washington, D.C. he will draw crowds, but Catholic schools there are struggling to fill classrooms. In New York City, he will address the United Nations while teachers in the Archdiocese of New York are striking, seeking greater pay and benefits. A study entitled “Who Will Save America’s Urban Catholic Schools?” released April 10 by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation found that, since 1990, more than 1,300 schools have shut down and roughly 300,000 students have been displaced and forced to complete their educations elsewhere. Catholic schools in many cities across the country are finding that voucher programs are “no panacea” and that transforming themselves into charter schools is the only alternative to shutting down.

The Fordham Foundation reports that these urban Catholic schools are closing not because the education on offer is poor or unwanted but because there are no funds to keep the schools open. Several trends have contributed to skyrocketing costs for urban Catholic schools. Today religious¯mostly sisters¯who used to teach students for little or no pay have been replaced by lay teachers with full salaries and benefits. Catholic families have gradually moved to the suburbs and away from urban areas, where these schools are located. But their departure has not decreased the demand for these schools; it has only increased costs. Inner-city families are clamoring to get into these schools (and out of urban public schools) but often pay less tuition and little or no contribution to the parishes that support these schools.

But if things look so grim for urban Catholic schools, then what accounts for places like Wichita, Kansas, where funds are abundantly available and student enrollment is on the rise, or Memphis, Tennessee, where a growing number of closed inner-city schools are reopening with new interiors and long waiting lists?

In Wichita, Catholic students attend Catholic schools tuition-free, and non-Catholics at bargain prices, thanks to the parishioners who tithe regularly. Poorer parishes serving minority populations are thriving due to a generous scholarship program that shares money from wealthier parishes. And in Memphis, where the local dropout rate is reportedly greater than 35 percent, church leaders now run the successful Jubilee Schools, made possible with the generous support of philanthropists eager to fund the city’s education revival. A hefty scholarship program assists a large number of needy students to attend for little or no tuition. Mary McDonald, head of the Jubilee school project, notes that “since they are not Catholic, [funders] are not investing in the structure of the Church, or in the Catholic Church . . . . [The brand name] is a by-product of their generosity, their investment, but the focus is education as a means of lifting up children in poverty and providing the city with an educated citizenry. They see Catholic schools as the best means to do that.”

Those supporting these programs have recognized the problem of closing schools and use vigorous campaigns, smart marketing techniques, and generous giving to reverse negative trends. All conscientious Americans should acknowledge that losing Catholic school education¯high quality education for kids in economically devastated areas¯is indeed a big problem precisely because that quality education cannot be found in our public schools, especially in the inner cities.

But it’s worth noting that the men and women, religious and lay, who built America’s Catholic schools did so not to educate the poor but to educate Catholics . Catholic schools were formed as a means of passing down the faith to Catholic children and were a self-conscious attempt in the early to mid-1900s to wall off children from a mainstream culture that was considered hostile to Catholics. Given this fact¯and given that, contrary to Fordham’s hopes, religious charter schools are not likely to become a reality anytime soon¯perhaps it’s not too ungenerous to ask whether it is entirely fair to ask Catholics to shoulder the burden of educating the urban poor?

True, educating the poor has long been a part of the Church mission; but so too, and arguably stronger, does the Church have a mission to spread the truth to its own members. As evidenced by a New York Times poll from 1994 showing 70 percent of polled Catholics between the ages of 18 and 44 considered the consecrated host a mere “symbolic reminder” of Jesus, there’s reason to believe Catholic schools could benefit from a return to the starting focus of educating Catholic children in the faith.

The reformers at the Fordham Foundation see Catholic schools as one answer to the problem of urban education because they are good schools. But it is worth asking a few questions: To what extent are these schools excellent because they are Catholic, in the sense that they express a commonly held worldview, center a religious community, and participate in a shared faith life? And what effect will it have on their excellence if they cease to be Catholic, in the sense of primarily educating Catholics as Catholics? Will these schools still retain their excellence? Perhaps because they think of these schools first as good and only secondarily as Catholic, the Fordham Foundation hopefully assumes so and welcomes generous Catholics to do the same. But, especially on the occasion of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit this week, it’s worth considering his words from an address to the Congregation for Catholic Education this past January on the importance of keeping the Catholic identity in Catholic schools: “Schools should . . . question themselves on the role they must fulfill in the contemporary social context, marked by an evident educational crisis. The Catholic school . . . cannot fail to propose its own educational, human and Christian perspective.”

Mary Rose Rybak is managing editor of the New Atlantis , a journal of technology and society published by the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.


Who Will Save America’s Urban Catholic Schools?

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