Late last month, the U.S. Supreme Court corrected an historic injustice, rooted in anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic bigotry, that, for more than 100 years, has denied students in religious schools the same opportunities as government-school students.
The landmark ruling in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue will greatly expand school-choice options, especially for low-income and minority families. It could not have come at a more crucial moment.
With Congress now back in session to consider next steps to sustain Americans through the COVID-19 pandemic, helping tuition-paying families keep their Catholic and other non-government schools open this fall must be part of the larger, urgently needed plan to sustain our nation. Doing so is right for parents, children and their devoted teachers who depend on these schools.
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected every American. In addition to mourning the tragic loss of tens of thousands of our loved ones and fellow citizens, the country is also encountering the painful effects of racism and discrimination. As we consider the changes our country needs to make, access to quality education should be a prominent item on the list. All Americans, regardless of race or income, need a path to true human flourishing.
For nearly two centuries, Catholic schools have provided an enormous public benefit by educating a diversity of Americans from every walk of life, including from every income level, but especially the poor and immigrant communities. For countless Americans, a Catholic education is the surest path out of poverty.
Catholic schools also educate significant numbers of students who are not Catholic, including children from Protestant, Jewish and Muslim families and from homes where no religion is claimed. These parents, like Catholic parents, want a great education for their children.
Catholic schools are presently facing their greatest financial crisis as a result of the coronavirus. Because of economic loss and uncertainty, many families are confronting the wrenching decision to pull their children out of Catholic schools. Already, the National Catholic Education Association estimates close to 100 Catholic schools will close. Declining reenrollment trends portend hundreds more school closures are likely — if these schools are not provided federal support in the next coronavirus-relief bill.
Catholic schools are worth saving not only for the proven results in serving children from low-income, working-class and middle-income families, but because of the impact our schools have on American society as a whole.
Our schools’ mission is to serve, and our success is documented. Catholic schools do a better job of educating students, at half the cost of government schools, and provide healthy competition in education. Year after year, 99% of our students graduate from high school, and 86% go on to four-year colleges.
Catholic-school closures would have more than a ripple effect for taxpayers. For every student educated in a Catholic school, taxpayers save thousands of dollars by not having to educate them in government schools. Per-pupil costs of public schools are about $12,000 a year. With nearly 2 million Catholic-school students, that means Catholic schools are saving the nation’s taxpayers more than $20 billion each year. The financial danger to already cash-strapped school-district budgets is that hundreds of closures will increase overcrowding in government schools at the worst possible time, as the Centers for Disease Control urges schools to provide greater space for children.
Our leaders in Washington can avoid this twofold education crisis by investing in families as part of any new coronavirus-relief bill, to enable them to sustain their desired Catholic education for their children. This is not a choice between tax-payer-funded public schools and tuition-based independent schools. Public schools and independent schools equally deserve and urgently need our government’s assistance.
The most effective and immediate way to accomplish this is to fund scholarship assistance this summer to families who are economically disadvantaged and need such support. The scholarships would be used at Catholic or other non-government elementary or secondary schools. This approach would be similar to providing Pell grants that can be used at any institution of higher education, including religious institutions.
To enable families to provide the best education for their children and stabilize enrollment in Catholic and other non-government schools, Congress should also adopt a federal scholarship tax credit modeled after successful state-level credits. This is the kind of program that the Supreme Court upheld in the Espinoza case. COVID-19 is impacting all Americans, and we are in this struggle together. We therefore should ensure these tax credits are available to every eligible child in every state. No state should be permitted to deny their resident students access to scholarship opportunities resulting from federal tax policy.
Students and families for generations have benefited from Catholic schools, which have benefited America as a whole. This is now in serious jeopardy, as another sad legacy of the coronavirus pandemic.
Urgent action by President Donald Trump and Congress to meet the needs of Catholic and other school families will preserve this important education option for generations to come and prevent added financial burdens on our government school systems.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan is the archbishop of New York;
Cardinal Seán O’Malley is the archbishop of Boston;
Archbishop José Gómez is the archbishop of Los Angeles
and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.