Closing Catholic Schools Harms Minority Students

COMMENTARY: Private-school choice programs increase minority-student success and improve public schools.

St. Jude Educational Institute in Montgomery, Ala.
St. Jude Educational Institute in Montgomery, Ala. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

This school year, for the first time since 1946, St. Jude Educational Institute will not welcome students.

Founded by Passionist Priests as a mission to serve Montgomery’s black community during a dark time in Alabama and our nation’s history, St. Jude has educated three generations of students.

According to the 2013 National Assessment for Educational Progress, Alabama saw only 6% of minority eighth-graders scoring proficient in mathematics and 9% scoring proficient in reading. Furthermore, according to Education Week, only 68% of black Alabama students in the class of 2012 graduated from high school. For nearly seven decades, St. Jude offered an option for students to exit an education system not meeting their needs.

Sadly, St. Jude’s story is not unique. In 1979, there were 9,640 Catholic schools nationwide. By 2011, that number fell to 6,841. In New York City, 58 city Catholic schools have closed since 2011, likely caused by a 35% drop in enrollment over the past decade.

This is a troubling development, as research since the 1960s has consistently showed Catholic schools provide a quality education, particularly for low-income families.

Indeed, a study from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis suggests Catholic high-school graduates earn 13.6% more than their public-school counterparts and are 15.8% more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree, even after controlling for demographic characteristics. Catholic schools achieve this success at less per-student cost on average ($8,585) than traditional public schools ($10,560).

Per-student cost is rising, however, due to decreases in religious vocations, changing urban demographics and aging infrastructure, which prices many families out of Catholic schools. “Free” taxpayer-supported charter schools are only accelerating this trend.

My colleague Andrew Kelly and I studied urban Catholic schools facing declining enrollment in three cities that closed and, in effect, reopened as public charter schools. The new schools saw sharp increases in enrollment, particularly among minority students.

This “switch” provides strong evidence that when private schools’ tuition barriers are removed, more children, particularly minority children, will flood to them.

Moving students from Catholic schools to Catholic-like charter schools might appear to have no downside — particularly when many charter schools mimic the aspects of Catholic schools parents often want for their children: discipline, character development and rigorous academics.

However, offering inner-city parents diverse options, including the opportunity for a religious education for their children, is a worthy goal as well.

To that end, private-school choice programs provide parents, particularly those seeking an explicitly religious education, the financial ability to enroll their children in private schools. Importantly, just as price of entry is a non-issue at public charter schools, private-school choice enables families interested in Catholic, Jewish and other nonpublic schools to overcome tuition barriers — enabling such schools to stay open, thus expanding the set of educational choices available to families.

As the former executive director of two Indianapolis Catholic-to-charter schools told Andrew and me, had the state’s school-choice scholarship program existed before 2011, "[our private Catholic schools] would probably not have gone the charter route.”

Indiana’s private school-choice program is just one of 49 programs in 23 states and Washington, D.C. This number recently increased when Gov. Sam Brownback made Kansas the 24th state offering private-school choice after signing into law a tax-credit scholarship program for low-income families. Encouragingly, these programs have a strong track record of success.

Of the 12 random-assignment studies examining private-school choice programs, 11 found students improved academically because of their private education. Just one found no effect, and none concluded there was a negative impact because of private-school choice. The latest such study, of a private-scholarship program in New York, found black students using scholarships were more likely to attend college after high-school graduation.

Even the families who stay in public schools can benefit from school choice. Of the 23 empirical studies examining the impact of school-choice programs on public schools, 22 found academic improvements in affected public schools. Again, one showed no impact, and none found a negative outcome.

St. Jude changed my life when I taught ninth and 10th grade there. It also changed the lives of the thousands of students who received a St. Jude’s education. Its closure is a loss to the community of Montgomery — like closures of Catholic schools have been in communities all across America. The closure of Catholic schools, however, is not preordained. Steps can be taken to keep them alive.

Michael McShane is a research fellow in education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.