The National Catholic Review
The coming crisis: schools in affluent parishes will bleed red ink.
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If you are the parent of a child considering Catholic high school next September, there is a good chance youve spent the last few weeks shuttling from open house to open house, collecting pamphlets and other well-crafted handouts, taking note of SAT scores and college acceptance rates, and trudging up and down staircases guided by bright-eyed students singing their schools praises.

In other words, choosing a Catholic high school is a bit more complicated than it was back in the day. I never set foot in my high school until my first day of class. But thats not to say that the old way was better. In fact, as my wife and I escort our daughter to open houses, Im enjoying the new approachtheres something to be said about warm and friendly salesmanship.

There is one aspect of this whirlwind that has not been quite so delightful: the prospect of paying low five-figure tuition next year. I dont begrudge the pricey costa little less than $15,000 per year, or about what I paid for my undergraduate educationbecause I know that nobodys getting rich in Catholic education. But I do wonder about the future of Catholic schools in high-tax areas like my home state of New Jersey.

Over and over, I hear the same refrain from Catholic school parents in high-tax states: We pay thousands of dollars in taxes for schools we do not use, and we pay thousands more in tuition. We should get a tax credit, or a voucher, or some other rebate.

I cannot think of a worse argument in favor of some kind of relief for nonpublic school parents.

Believe me, I would welcome a tuition tax credit. Next year, in addition to my daughters high school tuition, my wife and I very likely will be digging deeper to pay for a new 7-12 Catholic school for my son, a middle-schooler. Our out-of-pocket tuition cost next year could amount to around 25 grand, so if New Jersey (and the courts) somehow got religion on tax credits, wed stand to benefit.

But heres my point: I think its a terrible idea to expect government to offer rebates or credits to parents simply because they dont use their communitys public schools. While I realize that most arguments about vouchers or credits are designed to give poor and ill-served students alternatives to bad public schools, lots of middle-class Catholic school parents believe they, too, ought to be given relief because they dont use the public schools. But they have to figure out a better argument, one that isexcuse the expressionless parochial.

Even though I dont use my municipalitys public schools, I am part of a community, part of a larger civil society. A hallmark of any community is its commitment to public education, financed by the entire community. We travel down a dangerous road if we decide that public institutions ought to be supported only by those who use them.

And yet thats the essence of the argument you hear repeatedly if you spend any time around Catholic school parents in high-tax states: We dont use the public schools, so we shouldnt have to pay to support them.

What worries me is not the argument itself, because in the end it goes nowhere and is probably more of a rant than it is a policy suggestion. What worries me is a variation on that argument: We pay so much money in property taxes, wed be fools not to use the public schools.

That very powerful argument, I believe, may lead to a new generation of Catholic school closings.

Urban dioceses, of course, have been consolidating or closing schools since the 1960s as Catholics moved to the suburbs and began a new round of institution-building. But as housing costs and taxation have skyrocketed in regions like the Northeast, and as Catholic school tuitions have increased to pay for the lay teachers who replaced most of the nuns and brothers, many suburban Catholic schools are facing the familiar crisis of lower enrollment and soaring deficits. The most recent round of closings in New York, for example, included several schools outside the city limits.

The reasons for suburban closings vary, but I suspect that high taxationand not a falling away from religious practiceaccounts for low or disappointing enrollments in otherwise thriving parishes. The coming crisis, I believe, will almost seem counterintuitive: schools in affluent or well-off parishes will be bleeding red ink.

I have begun to see this in New Jersey, proud home of the nations highest property tax burden. I know of suburban educators, administrators and parents who have tried to boost enrollment in all kinds of creative ways, but who simply cannot counter the taxation argument. This is the anomaly of parishes whose finances are fine, but whose schools have lots of empty desks.

What to do? Painful though it will be, a round of suburban consolidation seems inevitable at the elementary school level. And if that happens, as I believe it will, we can only hope that it will be well planned and thought out, rather than spurious and improvised.

Beyond that, I think the Catholic clergy, educators and parents have to look to other models as we try to instill our religious beliefs and traditions in our young people. Recently, I have observed ways in which other faiths pass along values and the Gospel message without schools. Ill explore that issue in my next column.

Terry Golway is the curator of the John Kean Center for American History at Kean University in Union, N.J.

Comments

John Borst | 11/12/2007 - 9:03pm
Meg, you make some very interesting observations about Catholic education in America. But first let me share with you and the others that I too am a “Catholic school board member.” I am also a retired chief superintendent (to use the American term), in Ontario, a “Director” of a Public school board. Before that I was at a different time a superintendent of schools and a superintendent of student and instructional services with a large urban CATHOLIC board just north of the city of Toronto. I have also been a reader of Commonweal since 1963 (sorry about that America) and since 2002 have been an active participant on their commonweal@yahoogroups.org discussion group. Since September 2006 I have run a blog on Catholic education in Canada called Tomorrow’s Trust: A Review of Catholic Education, and according to Google Blog Search since July 2007 it is the number one blog in the world under the search words “Catholic education”. So let me share with you my take on your last paragraph. I do not think Golway is necessarily guilty of a preference for middle and high school Catholic education. In my following of American Catholic magazines (and Commonweal is very guilty of this), they focus first and foremost on Catholic university education. Even to have an article on Catholic elementary or high school education is rare. I think it part of the fact that Catholic publications like America, Commonweal, First Things, and U.S. Catholic have as the majority of their subscriber base graduates of American Catholic universities and that is the market to which they are writing. It is also where the advertising for “education issues” comes from. In fact, as if to prove my point, U.S. Catholic currently has a feature article on their website called "Do Catholic universities make the grade?". The issue of a true commitment is obviously one I wrestle with all the time. Imagine if you will the situation I face at the Northwest Catholic District School Board. When the government of Ontario created the board beginning December 1, 1997 by combining two different neighboring Catholic Boards (neither one of which had opted to offer high school) it declared that the new larger board would have responsibility for both elementary and secondary education. I waited six years for them to begin offering secondary education. When they didn’t in 2003 I ran for Catholic trustee in the municipal election and got elected. First they wouldn’t believe me when I read them the section of the Education Act which said they were responsible for both levels. They then asked a lawyer at an $8,000 fee and she confirmed I was correct. She advised them they should have a contract with a neighboring board for secondary school programs to protect themselves from liability because they were in contravention of the Act and one of them suggested they have a contract with the “Public” school board which was were the kids were going anyway. Remember, they would get full grants for each kid they retained and capital to build a school. This is not like your situation where it must all come out of private/diocesan fund raising. Now you would think that school board members would be “committed” Catholics. After all, two of them were past Grand Knights. The women are active in the Catholic Women’s League or Catholic Parent Advisory Councils but still to this day I have not even got a motion to do a feasibility study. It has lost twice on a tie vote, both times with the KofC now no longer on the board casting the tie vote. I put much of it down to historical inertia, a fear of hurting the successful elementary schools (have to rob Peter to pay Paul), and although no one will articulate it, fear of upsetting the local “public” community. And what role might you ask has the Bishop and parish priests played? Zero, zippo, useless! The priests have no historical or cultural knowledge of the development of Catholic schools in Ontario at all. Why should they; they come from Italy, I
John Borst | 11/10/2007 - 12:13pm
Brett, That may be the case. But how do you propose an alternative system to the one you have created? As the recent vote in Utah proved and as Richard John Neuhaus asks at First Things "The Bell Tolls for School Vouchers?" the answer appears to be yes, a result consistent with my previous remark. It might be of interest for you to know that in the recent October provincial election in Ontario, Canada the only topic of debate was a Conservative Party proposal to extend funding to other faith-based schools. I say other because Catholic schools already get full grants equal to "Public" secular schools of the type you describe (although I would not paint them so immoral - the Protestant ethic is still alive and well, believe me.) In that election the Tory's went down to a resounding defeat against a weak Liberal government. In the area in which I live, north of the border with Minnesota (very rural as you might expect) the Catholic School Board has no secondary school even though in law they are required to offer secondary school programs. Although, they would get about $12,000 per pupil and the capital to build a school the Board has made no effort to do so. They will not even study the issue and they have declining enrollment at the elementary school level. Parents make no demands on them to supply a Catholic high school education. I think statism has little to do with it. The state of Catholicism bears as much, if not more, responsibility.
MEG ROGERS | 11/9/2007 - 4:35pm
As a Catholic school board member and parent of three Catholic school children who has spent the last ten years trying to "boost enrollment in all kinds of creative ways", I find it unimaginable that anyone who recognizes the value of a Catholic education would not encourage some type of tax credit. Those of us using Catholic schools are saving tax payers a huge amount of money. Even if we only got credit for what we spend per child (which is only a fraction of what it cost to educate publically), it would go a long way to further those efforts of us in struggling schools. Exactly why is child from one economic bracket more entitled to a Catholic education than from another. Mr. Golway also mentions that he thinks that there needs to be "suburban consolidation" that he hopes is "well planned and thought out, rather than spurious and improvised". Spoken like someone who hasn't been invovled in their Catholic grammar school. Who does he think will provide this plan? As someone who has been working on the survival of Catholic education, rest assured the already over-burdened parishes and dioceses are not up to the task. It is we, the members of the Catholic church, who need to address the issues and work towards it success. With the decrease of vocations and increase in apathy when in comes to the practicing our Catholic religion, all hands should be on deck to ensure the success of these institutions. I am afraid Mr. Golway sounds like so many of the parents I have met lately. They are interested in the education of their child at the middle and high school level, maybe just for college preparation reasons. It makes me wonder if there is a true commitment to Catholic education in terms of the development of the chld as whole and from the very start of his or her formation.
Brett | 11/8/2007 - 12:06am
This is an amazing argument coming from this publication and am disappointed that I subscribed to the web edition to read it. In any case, the idea that American Catholics essentially give up on the Catholic schools is amazing and it is a symptom of just how ingrained statism has become in this country. The Catholic school system was created to as a direct result of discrimination/bias encountered in the public school system that was dominated by a form of Unitarian pan-Protestantism. While this is not the case today, a new ideologically based "common good" has replaced Protestantism and is equally as biased. The public school system is dominated by rampant secular liberalism and state propaganda. To financially blackmail the Catholic communities into sending their children to state-run institutions smacks of despotism and is eerily similar to early forms of government who coerced citizens to support state-established religion. This point is explained in a recent Christian Science Monitor opinion piece by Thomas Hunt and James Carper: "When the government privileges a specific set of propositions of knowledge and dispositions of value and belief, it has established the educational equivalent of a state church. Such an arrangement is just as incompatible with liberty of conscience, as were the established churches of America's early history."
John Borst | 11/6/2007 - 5:41pm
From my educated perspective North of the 49th, Golway’s prediction is more likely to be correct than any wishful thinking regarding vouchers or an amendment to the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. My experience has been that U.S. Catholics are as supportive of the separation of Church and State, as America practices it, as are citizens of other faiths or no-faith. This leaves either a voucher or tax-credit system and as Jim Mahoney reminds readers, the idea has gone nowhere in half a century and is unlikely to gain much headway during the near-time frame within which Golway is thinking. Like it or not people of faith in America have made an irreconcilable bargain. They have agreed that the vey Catholic concept of “the common good” includes a tax-supported system of “public” schools and that the term “public” shall exclude faith-based institutions. This is not true of other democracies. Countries such as the United Kingdom, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Australia and some provinces in Canada, to name but a few, have managed to define “public” to include faith-based schools. With that in mind Golway’s argument is not flawed and it is Faranda whose argument is flawed. American taxpayers including Catholics owe their first loyalty is to their Public schools. America’s newspapers are daily filled with reports of Catholic school consolidations and closures. In comparison new suburban schools are few and far between. When some inner city schools are surviving on the sacrifices that must come with tuition in the $4000.00 range v. the more accurately costed $14,000 suburban rates, it is clear that Catholic education’s future will be a privilege of the wealthy or “economically challenged” bright. I will therefore look forward to Golway’s alternative suggestions as they may be of use in Atlantic Canada and as of September 2008, in Quebec.
John Rogers | 11/5/2007 - 9:55pm
Mr. Golway misstates the argument. It is not that private school parents should not have to pay property taxes because they don’t use public schools. The argument is that ALL parents should have a choice of which school they spend the money provided by the public— including childless, non-resident and commercial property owners— for the purpose of educating the community’s children. Parents are allowed to use public money—Pell grants and such--- at any college, from Brigham Young to Notre Dame to SMU, and there is no logical reason that that choice is not available at the K-12 level. It is not a coincidence that American universities, not run by the government, are the envy of the world, while the K-12 system, run by governments, is, well, not the envy of the world. NYC Mayor Bloomberg is right: the K-12 system is like Detroit in the 1970’s: overstaffed, unresponsive, expensive, and run for the benefit of employees, not consumers. Since the original argument is misstated, the logical consequence is also flawed. “We pay so much in property taxes, we’d be fools not to use the public schools”. If this were the way people truly felt, then the higher the Catholic school tuition, and thus the greater the disparity with free public schools, the greater would be the exodus from Catholic schools. Yet, at least on high-tax Long Island, the exact opposite is the case. Elementary schools-tuition $3,000-$4,000 are struggling, but Catholic high schools--$7,000 and up--- are over subscribed, with acceptance rates as low as 50%. In most Catholic high schools, half or more of the students went to public grade school. So….it doesn’t seem to be the money! The question then becomes, what value do parents see in Catholic high schools that they don’t see in Catholic grade schools? Since new parents are endlessly told, from pregnancy onward, that an early start is the necessary key to learning-to-swim-playing-an-instrument-learning-a-language, I think it is safe to assume that parents aren’t thinking kindergarten is too early for faith formation, and that such an important topic must wait until ninth grade. It could be that parents realize that those public schools not physically unsafe may be morally toxic, and that the dangers increase with each passing grade. So it may be the ‘fear factor’ that drives them to the Catholic high schools. What is needed is for parents to be educated, and to realize ninth grade is too late. I look forward to the next article and the ideas for other educational models. The day when all Catholic kids will have a Catholic education is regrettably far off, and we need something for them that is better than the status quo.
JOHN WALTON MR | 11/5/2007 - 6:58am
Terry -- good luck -- I was very pleased with the education my sons received at a Catholic HS in suburban NJ -- it may irritate some of the American editorialists to know that there is higher education outside of Regis High School. High schools have less of a problem as alumni remain faithful to the mission. For my alma mater the 40+% participation rate of alumni giving allows the institution to compete with the best private schools while offering those whose economic circumstance is "challenged" to also attend. Regrettably, pastors in parishes with grade schools do little to foster this sense of alumni responsibility, and most parish grades schools operate with $100,000 to $300,000 deficits while Sunday collections remain stagnant.
THOMAS FARANDA | 11/3/2007 - 7:13pm
What a flawed argument. We need to pay taxes and are not entitled to a tax credit, or some other form of tax relief, because we have an obligation to support public education. Completely overlooked is the point that by educating our children outside of the public system, we are relieving that system of a substantial cost - the cost of educating the child! What is the per capita cost of educating a child in your school district? You can bet it's a lot higher then any suggested tax relief that has ever been proposed to help offset the cost of a private education! Just for the record, I have a child at Fordham Prep (despite my suspicion of the Jesuits), a child in a Catholic grammar school, and am on the Lay Board of Advisors at another Catholic grammar achool.
SUSAN OLENSKI JLP MEd | 11/3/2007 - 11:51am
As the old dean of my college school of ed said the other day, the Jesuits vowed poverty and the lay faculty practiced it. In my 33rd year of Catholic order sponsored secondary education I found out that a substitute teacher retired from a blue collar lower middle class suburban HS district pensioned out at twice my salary. And then we live in a Merrill-Lynch-'megagolden'-parachute-for-a-very-flawed-performance kind of world. I recruited a very idealistic and talented young colleague a few years ago. She moonlights as a bartender. How long can she and her peers last? NOTHING produces more good to society than Catholic schools as was demonstrated to me at my 40th HS reunion 2 weeks ago--each college bound alum has given the world a lifetime in human services works of one kind or another. We need to reconsider our values, as well as encourage and honor the vocations in our midst. I can't wait to read the no Catholic school option in the next article.
Jim Mahoney | 11/3/2007 - 12:17am
Before you write another column on this matter, Terry, please at least SOUND as if you've heard about the name and work of the Nobel prize-winner Milton Friedman of MIT who proposed vouchers for EVERYBODY over 50 years ago. Spend at least ten minutes thinking over his insight about enabling parents the freedom of choice for the schools their children MUST attend. You're thinking in an early American box. Think outside that box. Think NOW! Think Freedom! Public school parents need this as much as, if not more than, parents of children who attend religious or private schools!

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