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Poll shows 56% in support of government assistance. Programs expanding, helping to keep parochial schools afloat.
BY STEVE WEATHERBE
At least partly thanks to a growing wave of states enacting school voucher programs, many Catholic schools are again seeing increased enrolments.
Indiana began offering vouchers in 2011, as did Douglas County, Colo., while Congress reinstated the District of Columbia’s voucher system that had been defunded by the Obama administration. Now, nine states, the District of Columbia and a single school board in Colorado offer vouchers, while four other states offer educational savings accounts, scholarships or other aid. These plans cover 210,000 students across America, up sevenfold from 2000.
Estimating that more than 50% of the students using vouchers in many cities are going to Catholic schools, John Schilling, the chief operating officer of the non-sectarian Alliance for School Choice, offered this explanation: “The Catholic schools have been successfully educating children from every economic and ethnic background for decades, and doing it very well. Tragically, we are seeing a lot of Catholic schools closing. One of the promising things about the expansion of vouchers is that it could keep those schools and opportunities open.”
From 2002 to 2010, enrollment at Catholic schools across America fell from 2.6 million to 2 million, while more than 1,000 schools closed. Meanwhile, public-school enrolment has climbed steadily from 53.3 million in 2000 to 55.3 million in 2010. But while Catholic enrolment fell 2.5% a year over the first decade of the century, last year it dropped only 1.7%.
Karen Ristau, president of the National Catholic Education Association, believes she knows why.
The decline in enrollment is “definitely slowing,” she said, “and vouchers are a part of it.”
Catholic schools appear to be the main beneficiaries of vouchers — and for good reason, Ristau said. “Our schools are very good, they are very welcoming, and they are faith-based. They are what people want.”
Moreover, the graduation rate at Catholic schools is above 99%, compared to 75% at America’s public schools — or 56% for public schools in the 50 biggest U.S. cities.
It also helps that Catholic tuition rates are reasonably low — at $3,600 on average for elementary school and $8,100 for high school, compared with the slightly more than $10,000 spent — on average — on each public-school student. The average scholarship amount across the nine states with vouchers is $5,900. (The public schools receive on average $10,000 per pupil.) It also helps that Catholic schools are well established in inner cities.
So schools such as St. Augustine’s in Barberton, Ohio, just south of Cleveland, and St. Stanislaus in East Chicago, Ind., have dusted the cobwebs off the desks and removed them from attics and crawlspaces for students using vouchers provided by their state governments. Indiana’s is the newest voucher program; Ohio’s is among the country’s oldest.
Though Catholic schools are open to all, said Ristau, the main users of vouchers are Catholics who simply couldn’t afford the tuition without state support.
But why do students do so much better at Catholic schools? Ristau credits the higher level of commitment from both the school staff and parents. “The parents and students have chosen us. They want to be here, and they want to stay here, so they do the work. And the school staff believe in the intrinsic worth of each person as one of God’s children.”
The Second Vatican Council discussed the importance of Christian education in Gravissimum Educationis: “Since all Christians have become by rebirth of water and the Holy Spirit a new creature so that they should be called and should be children of God, they have a right to a Christian education. A Christian education … has as its principal purpose this goal: that the baptized, while they are gradually introduced the knowledge of the mystery of salvation, become ever more aware of the gift of Faith they have received, and that they learn in addition how to worship God the Father in spirit and truth (cf. John 4:23) especially in liturgical action, and be conformed in their personal lives according to the new man created in justice and holiness of truth (Eph. 4:22-24); also that they develop into perfect manhood, to the mature measure of the fullness of Christ (cf. Eph. 4:13) and strive for the growth of the Mystical Body; moreover, that aware of their calling, they learn not only how to bear witness to the hope that is in them (cf. Peter 3:15) but also how to help in the Christian formation of the world that takes place when natural powers viewed in the full consideration of man redeemed by Christ contribute to the good of the whole society. Wherefore this sacred synod recalls to pastors of souls their most serious obligation to see to it that all the faithful, but especially the youth who are the hope of the Church, enjoy this Christian education.”
Although children generally do better in Catholic schools, hard work is required of everyone when students who transfer into Catholic schools are already two to three years behind where they should be in academics, said Judy Nakasian, special projects coordinator for the Diocese of Cleveland’s Office of Education. “The earlier they come to us, the more we can do for them. If they are already in high school, it is really difficult.”
Ohio has had vouchers for more than a decade, and its program cleared the way for others by winning a Supreme Court challenge in 2002.
While the diocese’s schools have declined in enrolment from 50,000 to 47,000 in the last decade, Cleveland’s public schools have fallen from 54,000 to 47,000. Students on vouchers or state scholarships account for 12% of the Catholic school enrollment. “Because of vouchers, our enrolment is stabilizing,” said Nakasian. She cited St. Augustine School in Barberton, which increased its enrolment by 64 this year.
Ohio’s voucher system is intended to offer an alternative to inferior public schools, and only students enrolled or about to be enrolled in schools that have been evaluated as inferior are eligible. Throughout the state, 140 public schools are rated low enough for their students to get vouchers. There are 220 private schools that are eligible, most of them Catholic.
Across the U.S., the public is divided on the merits of vouchers. The National School Board Association, a strong opponent of any form of state support for private schools, including vouchers, lists 11 referendums since 1972 in which state (or District of Columbia) voters have rejected such measures.
But a Friedman Foundation for Education Choice national poll released on Mother’s Day showed 56% of those surveyed supported vouchers vs. 28% opposed. On the other hand, a 2011 poll by Phi Delta Kappa, the professional organization for educators, shows Americans’ support for vouchers or similar programs diminishing from 46% in 2002 to 34% last year.
There is similar disagreement over results of educational-choice measures. The National School Board Association cites studies showing public-school students do no better after transferring to private schools, while the Alliance for School Choice lists other studies showing such students are 20% more likely to graduate than the classmates they left behind. As well, according to ASC data, parents of such children are happier with their schools and rate them as safer.
Register correspondent Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.