The Church must not miss this chance to change education, especially for the poor
By Charlie Camosy
Things couldn’t be worse for Catholic education in the United States, but they can get better. Since 1971 the number of schools have been cut nearly in half: from 9,366 then to 4,812 that survive today, and many of those are endangered.
And as a new report from Partnership Schools laments, the closures have been concentrated in economically vulnerable communities of color. 202 Catholic schools closed at the end of the 2019-2020 school year, and underserved groups were over twice as likely to lose their school. The Archdiocese of New York alone closed twenty of these schools, due mostly to complications arising from the pandemic.
Paradoxically, the pandemic has produced an incredible opportunity for Catholic education. This is a singular moment, a crossroads for the Church in the US.
The most obvious point is the disruption the pandemic has brought to all of education. The one-size-fits-all approach is gone and it is not coming back. Aided by technology, local community support, and (frankly) necessity, parents and communities are now looking at a creative mix of options for educating young people, including charters, pods, virtual learning, home schooling, and Catholic schools.
As the science showed that schools can reopen safely, and people began seeing the massive harms of the shutdown, it became increasingly untenable for public schools to remain closed. 93% of Catholic schools were open.
Another obvious point is just how badly public education has failed our students and culture, especially during the second half of the pandemic. At first being extra-cautious and working to protect vulnerable populations made good sense.
But as the science became clear that schools can reopen safely — Catholic schools were among those which proved this — it became increasingly untenable for public schools to remain closed. This was especially true as people began seeing the massive short and long term harms of school shutdowns.
The losses are not just academic. Rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide, which were already high, are up dramatically. Child abuse is going undetected, brain development (due to being glued to screens for at least half the day) is slowing, and socialization progress has halted or regressed.
As always, the worst hit are the most vulnerable. Families with privilege have the financial and cultural resources to access educational alternatives, putting even more economic and cultural distance between themselves and the rest of the culture.
Indeed, even progressive publications like The Nation have taken to strongly criticizing their political allies in government and the teachers’ unions for such policies. “The result of this extraordinary shutdown is that low-income, special-needs, and ESL kids in the three [west] coastal states — which pride themselves on their progressive politics — have been left behind.”
Especially given how concerned progressives at least claim to be about matters like these, one might think that progressive school districts would have these concerns at the front of their minds. But many don’t.
The superintendent of San Francisco public schools, for instance, recently said he wasn’t sure if their schools would be open for in-person learning next fall. Almost on cue, a nearby school district saw their entire board resign in disgrace after their snide and snarky comments about parents were unintentionally broadcast to the public. One member disparaged parents as wanting “their babysitters back,” while another suggested that wanted schools open so they could smoke more marijuana in their homes.
This condescending attitude, when coupled with the performative hyper-wokeism many parents consider ideological indoctrination, is absolutely toxic for trust in public education. From the “you can’t make this stuff up” file, the backlash coming from parents and others looking around for creative educational alternatives — especially for economically vulnerable populations of color — was itself described by the editorial board of The Baltimore Sun as “racism and classism.”
There is a massive cultural opening here for Catholic education to fill. Indeed, simply by staying open and safely serving students, Catholic schools have already begun to fill it. According to the Partnership Schools report, 93 percent of our schools were open for full-time in person instruction for the 2020-2021 school year, compared to 43 percent of traditional public schools and 34 percent of charters.
To meet this cultural opportunity for Catholic education, the Church in the US needs to decide, first, that it wants to do so. Not sell or lease schools to pay off debt.
But more is necessary, especially if we want to live our mission to serve Christ by serving Him in the least among us. And this has happened, unsurprisingly, in areas which have school choice programs. During the pandemic, Catholic school enrollment in Florida rose 3.2 percent, in Wisconsin by 4.9 percent, in Ohio by 8.35 percent, and in North Carolina by a whopping 16.3 percent.
The research undertaken by Partner Schools produced a very important first and primary lesson: “There is a strong demand for faith-based education, particularly in vulnerable and under-resourced communities.” But it is just not available to the populations who most need it.
We are light-years from the 1980s when the Church (mostly through orders of women religious, like the School Sisters of St. Francis who taught me) offered a dynamite education for something close to free. For reasons related to the strange US market for education, Catholic schools have become — with a few prominent exceptions — places for the privileged who want to get into a good college.
In order to meet this cultural moment for Catholic education, the Church in the US needs to decide, first, that it wants to do so. Instead of selling or leasing schools to pay off debt, we should be doubling down by investing more in them. We should also be cultivating donors to give strategically as a way of making a huge difference when we have this massive cultural opening.
And of course we should lobby at the federal and state levels for more school choice. That effort should marshal resources from throughout the Church, especially from quarters interested in racial justice.
The loss of so many Catholic schools has devastated local communities, not only in their ability to pass on the faith to the next generation, but also to invite new students and families to discover the Good News.
This kind of plan is pushes open an already open door. Three-in-four US Americans already support school choice programs, a number that is almost certainly going to grow post-pandemic. Countless families are now looking for vibrant, creative alternatives to the status quo.
But we should never forget the primary reason for Catholic education. Without making a false distinction between academic and spiritual goods, the Church is in the business of preaching the Gospel. The loss of so many schools as anchors has devastated local Catholic communities. It has taken away not only their ability to pass on the faith to the next generation, but to invite new students and families to discover the Good News.
But here the Church may be pushing on an open door as well. Perhaps counterintuitively, not least because of all the talk about the “nones,” but the door seems to be open.
The Springtide Research Institute recently found that 13 percent more young American Catholics say they have become more religious over the last five years than those who say they have become less religious. 68 percent of young Catholics say that religion shapes their daily life. Far more young Catholics say that their faith has grown during the pandemic (38 percent) than those who say they had more doubts (13 percent) or say they lost it altogether (7 percent).
While many young people have lost faith in religious institutions, they have lost faith in almost all institutions. What could God do with a Church that was committed to building institutions to help grow the spiritual seeds in young people?
Charlie Camosy is professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University and the author of Resisting Throwaway Culture. His previous article was Time for Pope Francis to lead in fight against legal abortion.
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