Catholic Schools See Enrollment Continue to Shrink

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Catholic Schools See Enrollment Continue to Shrink

According to the National Catholic Educational Association, about 150 Catholic schools closed over the summer, amounting to approximately 2 percent of the 6,183 schools in operation last year, reported The New York Times in September. That number was up at least 50 percent from recent years, said Kathy Mears, director of the NCEA.

The situation for Catholic schools stands to get worse over this summer, according to The Wall Street Journal. “For many of the lower-income families whom Catholic schools serve, especially in urban areas, the cost became too much once the pandemic hit and the economy cratered,” reported the Journal, particularly as many families were unwilling to pay tuition for virtual learning. In addition, donation revenue that used to bolster schools during economic crises plummeted.

Urban dioceses have been hit the hardest, with the archdioceses of Los Angeles and New York reporting drops in enrollment of 12 and 11 percent, respectively. Last July, the Archdiocese of New York announced that it would be shuttering 20 schools.

Catholic schools generally resumed in-person instruction faster than neighboring public schools, with about 85 percent of schools open in person on any given day this school year, which “helped boost enrollment 1.6 percent since September,” according to the Journal.

The Journal emphasized that the drop in enrollment at Catholic schools is part of a larger trend attributable to loss of confidence in Catholic schools on account of the sex-abuse scandals of the early aughts; the impact of the financial crash in 2008 on philanthropy; and the growing secular opposition to the church’s teachings on abortion and same-sex marriage.

This last development highlights the challenge of making Catholic school desirable to an increasingly secular society. “Enrollment at Catholic schools in the United States peaked at 5.2 million nationwide in the early 1960s,” reported the Times. “But as the percentage of practicing Catholics has declined across the United States, so has the number of children enrolling in Catholic schools. Enrollment for the 2019-20 school year was down to about 1.7 million.”

According to an analysis published in March by Gallup, “Americans' membership in houses of worship continued to decline last year, dropping below 50% for the first time in Gallup's eight-decade trend. In 2020, 47% of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque, down from 50% in 2018 and 70% in 1999.”

Conversely, the Journal pointed to a recent development of the “most devout Catholics” choosing to home-school their children “because they don’t believe Catholic schools are focused enough on the faith.”

An additional challenge for Catholic schools over the past twenty years, noted the Journal, has been the steady rise in charter schools. Indeed, many charter schools provide the order and discipline desired by parents sending their children to Catholic schools yet do so for free.

Published Tuesday, May. 11, 2021