WASHINGTON — A mixture of vouchers and tax credits are changing the educational landscape in the United States and filling seats in Catholic schools after years of steady decline.
Not only are Catholic schools seeing their enrollments stabilize or even increase, they are seeing the seats filled with a wide spectrum of socioeconomic, racial and even religious diversity.
It’s no secret that Catholic schools have long faced enrollment challenges. Enrollment dropped from 2.7 million in 1995-96 to 2.1 million in 2011-12. Current enrollment, according to the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA), is 1,974,578. Contrast this with the 5.2 million students in 13,000 Catholic schools in 1960. Today, there are just 6,594 schools.
The first voucher program appeared in 1990. Since then, increasingly more states have joined the choice-in-education movement, making available public funds to provide private-school education mostly to students from low-income families or those from low-performing schools. With these increases have come constant attacks from teachers’ unions and other anti-school-choice groups.
Caught in the crossfire are Catholic schools reaching out to their communities.
Take St. Aloysius School in Bessemer, Ala., which sits in the middle of what Principal Stephanie Burke calls a “struggling school system.” Four years ago, the pre-3K to grade 8 school enrolled 84 students. Today, close to 170 students fill the school, and Burke expects that, next year, the school will reach capacity at about 220.
Together with a renewal of the school’s Catholicity and educational quality, further success can be attributed to the Alabama Accountability Act, a tax-credit program that helps lower-income families from struggling schools attend private schools. Fifty-six of the St. Aloysius School’s students attend using funds from the program.
“For us, we’ve used it as an opportunity to reach out to our Spanish-speaking neighbors who are vastly underserved in the Catholic school system, who may not know that these scholarships are available because of language barriers,” Burke said. “We are now really seeing the fruit of these efforts.”
The Good News
Parental choice in education fits with the Catholic Church’s vision of the parents as primary educators of their children, said Father Ronald Nuzzi, director of the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education.
“Politically, it’s the age of choice for parents,” he said. “It has been on a growth trajectory since 1990. We want to make sure the central role of parents is highlighted and preserved and give them power to make decisions in the best interests of their child.”
Likewise, the NCEA believes that “the common good of society is advanced by helping parents to exercise fully their right to direct the upbringing of their children through the educational program of their choice,” a statement echoed by Presentation Sister Dale McDonald, the association’s director of public policy.
“The Catholic school system was started for immigrant families who were very poor,” she said. “If parents want to choose a Catholic education for their children, we want to be able to support that choice and to be able to offer financial aid. The mission of Catholic education is not meant to be just for elite families.”
Although the programs usually do not cover all of the cost of Catholic-school tuition — averaging $3,880 for elementary school and $9,622 for high school — they bring Catholic schooling within reach to new communities.
21 States Offer Vouchers
Nationally, the impact of school choice in public education is indisputable. Today, 21 states offer vouchers, where funds that would have gone to a public school follow the student to a private institution (some of these are only for children with special needs).
Seventeen states offer scholarship tax credits, where an individual or institution donates funds, in exchange for a tax credit for scholarships for children to attend private schools. One state offers a direct parental tax credit (the tax credit reimburses the parent for tuition). The latest offering on the parental choice-in-education front? Educational Savings Accounts, wherein funds from the state are put into a special account for parents to spend as they see fit for their child’s education.
In all, 308,000 students across the country are participating in private-school choice programs.
Florida is by far the leader, with nearly 87,000 students participating in choice programs. According to the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, 13.5% of students in their Catholic schools receive the Florida Tax Credit (FTC; commonly called Step Up). Just over the last year, the conference reports a 20% increase in the number of students receiving the FTC.
Holy Redeemer Catholic School in Kissimmee, Fla., is just one example of how Step Up is affecting Catholic schools. Enrollment at the school jumped from 316 to 390 students in just two years. The school, located in a high-minority, lower socioeconomic area, saw a large influx of Hispanic students.
“It has been a very positive growth of enrollment,” said Principal Gloria Del Orbe. “The families that have come in are very active in our community and school. The Step Up program is giving a lot of children the opportunity to come to Catholic schools who would not have otherwise been able to attend.”
Increase in Minority Students
In the Archdiocese of New Orleans, where 4,000 students in Catholic schools participate in the Louisiana Scholarship Program, schools have seen an increase in the number of Hispanic and African-American minority students. The same holds true in the Diocese of Birmingham, where the Alabama Accountability Act sets aside $25 million each year in tax credits to allow children to attend private schools. All of the diocese’s 28 schools participate, and Father John McDonald, diocesan director of education and lifelong formation, said the program has made a big difference, especially in reaching the Spanish-speaking community in Alabama.
In fact, Catholic school data show that 15% of students in Catholic schools are Hispanic, and almost 20% are black.
Father McDonald points to St. Barnabas School in the East Lake area of Alabama as an example of what the tax-credit program can do. The school, located in an area of economic decline, is now thriving, thanks to students enrolled via the tax-credit program.
But there is another key to the school’s success, said Father McDonald. “The pastor has been a big influence,” he said.
“Any success in Catholic schools is linked to the involvement of the pastor. Period. You can have all the money flowing in, but you need the pastor to be out there and speaking of the Church’s mission.”
Of the Catholic schools in general in the Birmingham Diocese, which is about half Spanish-speaking, he said, “These schools are trying to meet a need in the communities where the children are underserved.”
Inner-city northern schools have also seen success through increased enrollment. Milwaukee holds the distinction of having the largest and oldest voucher program for low- and middle-income families (the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, as well as its later-implemented counterpart, the statewide Wisconsin Parental Choice Program).
“While our data does not draw a strong correlation between the Parental Choice Program in the state of Wisconsin and enrollment growth within the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, the availability of vouchers has stabilized some Catholic schools,” said Julie Wolf, communication director for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. “Most important is the fact that the Parental Choice Program provides parents the option to choose where their children are educated.”
Such increases in enrollment bring with them questions. First, not all Catholic schools — even those located in the same diocese — choose to participate. In the Archdiocese of New Orleans, only 31 of the 84 schools participate.
“There are a variety of reasons that schools don’t participate,” said Jan Lancaster, archdiocesan superintendent of Catholic schools. “Many have their own financial aid and scholarship programs in place to accommodate families that cannot afford to pay tuition. Others have waiting lists and are at capacity.
“Some don’t want to participate because of the mandates that are imposed on participating schools from the Louisiana Department of Education.”
Among these demands, she said, are testing and audits.
Those that do participate might see increased demands on their staff and resources due to more Spanish-speaking and lower-performing students.
At Holy Redeemer in Florida, where enrollment jumped over two years, one challenge has turned into a blessing. Because many of the incoming students were non-native English speakers, the school retested every student; and in doing so, the staff identified not just the students who were struggling, but also those who were performing highly. The school hired a bilingual-resource teacher to help.
Then there’s the question of the Catholic identity of the schools themselves.
In Cleveland, for example, the Cleveland Scholarship Program has filled seats in inner-city schools — but with mostly non-Catholic students. Some schools are more than 90% non-Catholic, which presents a unique opportunity for evangelization and outreach.
In Catholic schools, more than 16% of students are now non-Catholic.
Pam Ouzts, the department of education coordinator of special projects for the Diocese of Cleveland, said that the Catholic identity of the schools does not change with the decreased level of Catholic students.
“We are carrying on, as we do normally,” she said. “We are still having Masses and preaching the word. We would hope the message goes home with the children. We treat everyone as children of the Lord. This has been a really positive thing for these kids, but it does beg the question: Are these Catholic schools or mission schools?”
Some Catholic schools in Indianapolis, Miami and Washington have answered that question in a different way by converting to public charter schools owned by the archdioceses — and forsaking the religious mission during school hours.
Any school that undertakes an effort to increase enrollment through school-choice programs needs to have a plan, said Father Nuzzi.
“The places that have done it best are those that are thoughtful and that do it with a multiyear plan in place. They have to take into account that there might be students coming to their school who are not Catholic, who are academically struggling or behind. It's helpful for these schools to do it incrementally.”
Principal Burke of St. Aloysius in the Diocese of Birmingham says having such a plan was critical to her school’s recent success. The school spent the last three years implementing a game plan of refining and strengthening the school’s Catholic identity; training the teachers and developing a staff of faithful Catholics; and marketing to the segment most left out in the surrounding struggling school system — Hispanic-Catholic families.
The result? Huge increases in enrollment.
But there is one more component, Burke said, that can’t be neglected when ensuring a school’s success: “Along with the efforts we put into place, the most impactful was joining our efforts with prayer. That was paramount to our success.”
Challenges to Success
With $1.2 billion of public funds at stake, it’s not surprising that these programs exist in a battleground. In numerous states, teachers’ unions and anti-school-choice movements have filed lawsuits designed to halt the programs. North Carolina is embroiled in a lawsuit against its Opportunity Scholarship program. In Tennessee, a school-voucher bill was killed in legislation last year. Florida also faces a lawsuit filed by the unions, the school-board association, the Florida PTA and the Florida arms of the NAACP and the League of Women Voters.
Alabama, meanwhile, is facing a second lawsuit brought by the Alabama Education Association.
The Justice Department is even attacking the Louisiana Scholarship Program on the grounds that it creates a racial imbalance in schools.
No matter the outcome, and no matter the vitriol of the attacks, the mission of Catholic schools remains the same: “We can do a lot with a little,” said Father McDonald. “We simply seek to work as hard as we can to teach as Jesus did.”
Register correspondent Dana Lorelle writes from Cary, North Carolina.