Do Voucher Programs Help or Hurt Catholic Schools?

President Trump will visit a Florida parochial school, where low-income students receive tuition subsidies, to promote school vouchers, but a Notre Dame study finds that such programs may harm Catholic parishes.

(photo: Pixabay)

WASHINGTON — A new study entitled, “Beyond the Classroom: The Implications of School Vouchers for Church Finances,” suggests that, while voucher-supported parish schools may prevent a church from closing, the parishes may pay a big cost. The study indicates that voucher expansion dries up contributions from parishioners and leads to a decline in non-educational religious activity.

The Templeton Foundation-funded study, released as a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research, looked at the finances of Catholic churches in Milwaukee that operate parish schools. The “Milwaukee Parental Choice Program” is the oldest voucher program in the U.S. It started 26 years ago and works with voucher programs in both Catholic and other schools.

At a time when President Donald Trump’s new secretary for education, Betsy DeVos, has presented herself as a staunch advocate for school-voucher programs, the study’s findings will likely introduce fresh questions and controversy into the national policy debate that has already raised issues of church-state separation. And Trump himself referenced the issue prominently in his Feb. 28 joint address to Congress, calling education “the civil-rights issue of our time” and requesting that the assembled lawmakers “pass an education bill that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth, including millions of African-American and Latino children. These families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious or home school that is right for them.”

The president will follow up his endorsement of school vouchers  with a planned visit to a Catholic parochial school in Florida on Friday announced White House press secretary, Sean Spicer. 

Trump will hold a “listening session” at St. Andrew Catholic School, where almost 300 students, the majority of whom are black and come from low-income families, receive scholarships funded through state tax credits.

A school voucher is a voucher paid for by government funds that allows parents to remove their children from failing public schools and instead send them to a private school of their choice. The voucher is generally given directly to the parents, who endorse it to the school.

In the case of the Milwaukee Archdiocese schools, however, the voucher money goes directly to the schools. Formerly, the vouchers went to the parents, who had to come into the schools to endorse the vouchers over to the school, creating another step in the process.

“The data suggest that vouchers offer hope to struggling churches, but that hope comes at a price,” said Daniel Hungerman, the University of Notre Dame associate professor of economics, who led the study.

“Vouchers keep some parishes open by making churches act more like schools,” he said, indicating that the parish’s main and dominant activity becomes the school.

The data suggest that in parishes with voucher-supported schools, the vouchers become the parishes’ largest source of income, outpacing contributions from parishioners.

Citing the “Private School Survey,” which is published by the National Center for Educational Statistics, the study says that more than 80% of private-school students in the 2011-2012 school year attended religiously affiliated schools. Catholic schools operated by a parish make up a disproportionate number of these schools.


Differing Perspective

The Notre Dame study raised the stakes for Catholic educators who have advocated for an expansion of voucher programs but have been stymied by strong political resistance. And some leaders in the field of parochial-school education challenged the report’s conclusions.

“As much as I have great respect for Notre Dame, and I’ve spent a lot of my career working for the Holy Cross Fathers, I have grave issues with this study,” said Heather Gossart, senior consultant to the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA). “It attempts to paint this very important issue with too broad a brush. The study drew conclusions that I don’t think are valid.”

Although the study doesn’t find voucher money going to parishes, Gossart was nevertheless troubled by the study’s finding that parishes become dependent on vouchers. “Vouchers don’t fund parishes and churches,” she said emphatically.

“That would be a violation of church-state separation.”

She also rejected the idea that vouchers are responsible for a decline in financial contributions from parishioners when the local Catholic school received state funds for tuition subsidies.

Contributions are more “a reflection of the community in which a parish finds itself,” she said.

Hungerman told the Register that he also was surprised by the results of the study.

“I figured we were going to find that vouchers freed up money for new stained-glass windows and such,” he said.

Hungerman noted that the study didn’t pinpoint why donations fell in parishes with voucher schools.

“There could be a number of reasons donations go down,” he said.

“Vouchers could change the behavior of the laity, or change the decisions of parish leadership, or cause migration between parishes. We looked into the data on these ideas but didn’t see anything clear enough to put in the paper.”


Demographic Factors

But not everyone buys the idea that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between declining parish contributions and vouchers. Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff at the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, said changing demographics are a more likely cause.

“Many of these parishes are in predominantly non-Catholic areas,” he said. Catholics may have moved to the suburbs and left some formerly thriving urban churches struggling. “Where you once had four churches on four corners, you now need only one.”

Perhaps the most surprising person to have reservations about the finding that vouchers are responsible for reducing financial contributions from parishioners is Jay Frymark, one of the three members of the team that produced “Beyond the Classroom.”

Frymark is director of administration at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Grafton, Wisconsin, a parish with a school, and for seven years he was director of parish and school financial services for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. Like Topczewski, he views demographics as the primary culprit.

“There may be some correlation,” he admitted, “but I don’t think that’s the cause of the decline. These are parishes that would have declined anyway, without having vouchers. That is just my gut feeling.”

Frymark also questioned the suggestion that voucher programs spurred the decline of parish religious activities. He argued that a Catholic school is intrinsically a religious activity.

Topczewski seemed to agree. “What we have is the school becoming a renewed ministry for the Church,” he said. “The parish mission shifts focus to providing a quality education for the neighborhood. The school is the parish mission.”

As for the high proportion of non-Catholics in most Milwaukee Catholic schools, he said, “We don’t educate them because they are Catholics, but because we are Catholics.”


Evangelical Opportunity

Dan Guernsey, director of K-12 programs at the Cardinal Newman Society and associate professor and chair of the education department at Ave Maria University, agrees that hosting a parish school qualifies as a religious activity.

“This a great non-problem,” Guernsey said. “What are parish funds for if not for evangelization? There is no better way to evangelize the youth of the parish (whom it must be remembered are the parish — they are just the parish at grade 3!) than an authentic Catholic education. Vatican II reminds us that ‘The Church is bound as a mother to give to these children of hers an education by which their whole life can be imbued with the spirit of Christ and at the same time do all she can to promote for all peoples the complete perfection of the human person, the good of earthly society and the building of a world that is more human.’”

Calling the study “flawed,” Father Peter Stravinskas, executive director of the Catholic Education Foundation, said that the voucher program in Milwaukee is atypical. Instead of going to parents, vouchers currently go to the schools. “I am a supporter of vouchers, but there is a downside. When the financial burden is lifted, that can lead to a decline in involvement. When fifth-grade mothers bake a cake for a bake sale, that is a high level of involvement.”

In prepared comments on the study, Topczewski wrote, “Without the school and voucher revenue, would the parish still be present in the community? Possibly, but possibly not, because shifting demographics have left fewer Catholics to fill the pews. Non-school revenue decreases, naturally, because there are not as many Catholic donors in the pew on Sunday. This has nothing to do with vouchers. This has everything to do with shifting demographics.”

“Relating declining parish revenue to school vouchers does not seem connected unless you argue the parish wouldn’t exist without the school,” said Topczewski.


‘Business Transaction’ or Parish Sacrifice?

In fact, the study does argue that some parishes could not survive without voucher funds. This point led Mark Dynarski, an education researcher, to tell Business Insider that the study revealed a negative trend for Catholic education.

“It’s sort of the worst possible story — that private Catholic schools are basically becoming dependent on vouchers, and that it’s not even causing a greater degree of interest in that religion,” he said.

“It starts to sound more and more like a business transaction at that level.”

Gossart of the NCEA said that the opposite is more likely to be the case: Parishes, rather than benefiting financially from vouchers, are more likely to make sacrifices to keep a parish school open.

“I can assure you that vouchers never created a windfall for churches,” she said.

“No school has ever gotten rich from vouchers. There’s no doubt that some of our parishes are keeping schools open at great cost.”


Charlotte Hays writes from Washington, D.C.