On Jan. 5, 1860, a miracle-worker lay dead in the snow on a Philadelphia street. Born in Bohemia, Bishop John Neumann had built from scratch America’s first unified system of Catholic schools. By the 1960s, the city’s Cardinal Dougherty High School alone served about 6,000 students, and its Most Blessed Sacrament elementary school served about 3,800.
But as the baby boomers reached adulthood and moved to the suburbs, Philadelphia Catholic school enrollments plummeted. The religious orders that staffed the old schools receded, parishes folded, and per-pupil costs skyrocketed. Most Blessed Sacrament elementary school closed in 1994. Cardinal Dougherty high school is to be closed in 2010.
Sadly, this Philadelphia Catholic school story is America’s story. Today Catholic schools serve about 2.2 million students, roughly half the 1965 peak-year total. There are still nearly 7,250 Catholic schools, but since 1990 over 1,300 have closed and some 300,000 pupils have been displaced. The decline is concentrated in urban communities that now are home mainly to low-income, non-Catholic, minority families.
Non-Catholics care about the decline because it means more spending and crowding in public schools, and because Catholic schools generally get better educational results than public schools, especially with low-income minority children. Every so often these concerns stir momentary media interest. A recent example is Time magazine’s story on Oct. 12, “Looking for Solutions to the Catholic-School Crisis.”
The decades-old “crisis” is neither demographic destiny nor divine will. Catholic schools in Philadelphia and other cities can be saved, made solvent and strengthened managerially, and some long-closed schools might even be reopened. The five M’s for reviving Catholic schools are: mission, market, money, millennial and miracle.
Mission. In his address at Catholic University on April 17, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI called Catholic schools “an apostolate of hope” that must be “accessible to people of all social and economic strata.” The pope called for a renewed “commitment to schools, especially those in poorer areas.” For the mission to be sacred, the local children whose minds are fed by Catholic schools need not be Catholic any more than the overseas children whose bodies are fed by Catholic missionaries need be Catholic.
Market. Based on estimates I derive from data on a private scholarship program for low-income children, the latent demand for Catholic schooling in Philadelphia is huge. If partial tuition relief were available, some 50,000 more local parents would send their children to Catholic schools. Estimates of untapped markets in other cities are similar, and that is without even adding the large latent demand for Catholic schooling among Latino immigrant families.
Money. Government vouchers are politically improbable, but there is private money aplenty for Catholic schools. Since 1965, many Catholic colleges and universities have soared (bigger endowments, better buildings) just blocks from where many Catholic grade schools have sunk. The Catholic higher education sector needs to “adopt” and raise funds for Catholic elementary and secondary schools. Wealthy and well-positioned Catholics need to make the schools a philanthropic priority, and the bishops need to start looking to wealthy non-Catholics like those who support independent Catholic schools.
Millennial. Look to the Catholic quarter of the college-age cohort born in 1982 or later. Through programs like the amazing Alliance for Catholic Education, which is anchored at the University of Notre Dame, they are ready by the thousands to become the greatest-ever generation of Catholic school teachers and principals. The aforementioned Time story referred to the ACE as “a sort of Catholic version of Teach for America.” Actually, ACE is much better than T.F.A. I estimate that ACE yields five to 10 times as much urban teaching for every dollar invested.
Miracle. On Jan. 5, 2010, the 150th anniversary of St. John Neumann’s death, pray for him to intercede in expanding ACE and resurrecting Catholic schools in Philadelphia and nationally: “Obtain for us that complete dedication in the service of the needy, the weak, the afflicted and the abandoned which so characterized your life.”