Can We Be Frank About the Catholic School Crisis?

COMMENTARY: Sifting through the NCEA annual report, we know that a genuine, lasting renewal of Catholic education depends on families, pastors, and dioceses embracing its evangelizing mission.

Despite the rosy news articles, the recent data for Catholic schools is not all that it seems.
Despite the rosy news articles, the recent data for Catholic schools is not all that it seems. (photo: Shutterstock)

In the midst of a crisis, it’s natural to look for signs of hope — moments when the news isn’t so bad as it was before. But it’s perilous to ignore larger trends.

The National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) has released its annual report on Catholic school enrollment, finding no substantial change from last year’s 1.7 million students. Although the report makes no attempt to count Catholic home-schoolers and probably misses the growing number of independent schools providing faithful education, even flat enrollment numbers may seem a hopeful improvement over the tragic two-thirds decline in Catholic school students since 1965.

Moreover, the NCEA reported a 0.3% increase in Catholic-school enrollment last year and a larger 3.7% increase in 2021-22. The numbers of both years were expertly spun by pundits: The first annual increases in Catholic school enrollment in two decades! The largest increase in 50 years!

Yet it’s foolish to assume that these brief increases followed by this year’s steady numbers are evidence of a new trend in Catholic schools. It’s too soon to tell.

We can certainly be hopeful about growing opportunities for school choice in many states. And regardless of declining parochial school numbers, we can be excited about faithful Catholic home schooling and independent schools. And yet the media and many in the Church seem to willfully disregard other ominous trends in our culture and in our Church, including drastic declines in marriage and baptism. We need to be frank about these concerns and their impact on Catholic education.

The truth is, we are still in the post-pandemic period. In 2020-21, the number of students in Catholic schools dropped precipitously (6.4%) from the prior year, and 209 schools closed or merged nationwide. Despite the subsequent increases, enrollment has not recovered and remains well below pre-Covid levels. Until we see several years of enrollment growth, we can’t be certain we are experiencing anything other than a partial recovery from losses during the pandemic.

Moreover, despite the rosy news articles, the recent data for Catholic schools is not all that it seems. The last two years’ enrollment increases were touted as signs of strength across elementary and secondary schools, but in fact more than two-thirds of that growth was among preschool students, now comprising 14% of all Catholic elementary school children. If we disregard preschool students, the total enrollment in Catholic schools actually declined in 2022-23.

Also, another 170 Catholic schools closed or merged over the last three years, following 209 in 2020-21, with just 65 new school openings. That’s disastrous! Yet pundits still suggested a great comeback of Catholic schools.

The problem is that data can be presented in multiple ways, and Catholics must avoid being distracted from the whole truth. Although the NCEA has every reason to present its data in the best light, Catholic parents and Church leaders have every reason to consider the whole picture — and from a broader perspective, the trends in Catholic schools are an enormous tragedy that the Church needs to resolve with eyes wide open.

The Cardinal Newman Society urges a renewal of faithful parochial schools, a full embrace of Catholic home schooling and parent-led schools, and a Catholic exodus from public schools. But if Catholic leaders and educators instead ignore the true crisis of mission and identity, they abandon Catholic families to an increasingly hostile culture.

Here’s a perfect example of how data needs a proper perspective. This year, the NCEA reported that 82 of the nation’s Catholic dioceses had enrollment increases or remained steady. But that means that more than half the nation’s territorial dioceses saw declines. 

The NCEA also reports data by six regions of the U.S. and touts recent growth in the Southeast region, largely because of school choice in Florida. But in the Mideast region, home to the largest portion of Catholic school students just a decade ago, Catholic school enrollment has plummeted 26% in 10 years. Overall, Catholic schools have lost more than 281,000 students in that time.

That’s a crisis. But search news headlines, and you’ll find that many (especially Catholic publications) have reported good news for Catholic schools.

As for the Church, there’s an additional concern that deserves frank treatment: the rapidly declining numbers of Catholics in Catholic schools. The Church’s open door to non-Catholic students is a great blessing to many schools. But Catholic education is the Church’s most effective means of evangelization and formation for our Catholic young people.

The portion of Catholics in Catholic schools is now 72%, down from 97% in 1970. This means that, while total enrollment at Catholic schools has declined 61% since 1970, the decline among Catholic students is much greater: 71% in the same time period. We call that an emergency.

After six decades of decline, it’s time to get serious about a renewal of Catholic education, and that means a lot more than school choice and preschool programs. A genuine, lasting renewal of Catholic education depends on families, pastors, and dioceses embracing its evangelizing mission and thereby restoring value to lackluster schools and colleges while embracing new innovations like homeschooling and hybrid programs.

The Cardinal Newman Society is helping a growing movement of parents, educators and Church leaders build a new core of faithful Catholic education — at all stages of life, and in whatever form serves the needs of Catholic families. We’re focused on ensuring that every Catholic child receives the formation promised at baptism and an education centered on the truth of God.


 This column is reprinted with permission from The Cardinal Newman Society.