State Policy Network
How state think tanks can support Catholic education and expand educational opportunity in their states

By Cara Stillings Candal, Senior Fellow in Education at Pioneer Institute and co-editor of A Vision of Hope: Catholic Schooling in Massachusetts

If performance were the only measure, Catholic schools would be considered an American success story. Pioneer Institute’s new book, A Vision of Hope: Catholic Schooling in Massachusetts, tells the story of the schools’ substantive success and offers a blueprint for SPN organizations that want to promote and expand private school options in their states.

As the book chronicles, the many poor and minority students Catholic schools educate achieve high test scores, graduation, and college attendance rates. 

The schools also deliver value. Average annual tuition at an Archdiocese of Boston elementary school is $6,583, most families receive financial aid, and overall expenditures are well below average public school per-pupil spending in Massachusetts, which is nearly $16,500.

Parents are drawn to the unrelenting focus on achievement, classic liberal arts education, discipline, and values that are part of a Catholic education. In addition to academic excellence, a deep research base confirms that Catholic schools produce citizens who rate higher for tolerance, political knowledge, political activity, and community involvement than their publicly schooled peers. It’s no wonder that nearly 20 percent of the students in Archdiocese of Boston schools aren’t Catholic.

Catholic schooling: A successful education model in crisis

Despite such excellence, American Catholic education is in crisis. A Vision of Hope highlights a roadmap to sustainability for Catholic education, which will increase educational opportunity for more children.

In 1965, 5.2 million children attended Catholic schools in the United States. New data from Catholic education officials reveal that number has fallen to 1.6 million, with the COVID-19 pandemic delivering the latest blow to enrollment; even as most schools remained safely open for in-person learning when public schools were not. Boston’s Catholic schools have notably weathered the pandemic better than most, with comparatively small declines in enrollment.

There are a number of reasons for the decline in Catholic school enrollment over time. For example, expenses rose when numbers of nuns and priests, who once provided almost free labor, dropped precipitously in the 1960s and 70s. Schools are now staffed with laypeople who depend on their wages to live. 

One key to recovery for Catholic education is the elimination of barriers to support of the schools. Unfortunately, nearly 40 states have so-called Blaine Amendments to their constitutions. These amendments, which were rooted in anti-Catholic bias, prohibit public money from flowing to religious schools.

US Supreme Court decision offers hope for struggling Catholic schools

But hope arrived last year in the form of the US Supreme Court’s decision in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. There, the Court found that if a state decides to direct aid to non-government institutions, it cannot exclude faith-based institutions from that aid solely because they are faith-based.

The ruling may eventually lead to invalidation of Blaine Amendments. Meanwhile, it likely makes possible tax credit scholarship programs that may have been impermissible prior to Espinoza. There is no direct government funding of religious schools under these programs.  Rather, taxpayers receive credits for contributions to scholarship granting organizations that provide students with funding to attend schools other than their assigned public school. 

Helping students succeed through tax credit scholarship programs

There are currently 24 such programs in 19 states, almost all of which are need-based, that serve more than 300,000 students. Under these programs, students of all faiths can use the scholarship to attend Catholic schools. In the wake of Espinoza, many more states should develop tax credit scholarship programs.

A consensus of high-quality research finds that the programs produce better test scores, higher graduation and college attendance rates. Twenty-five out of 27 studies in one recent literature review also found that the incentive to compete for students improved outcomes at the public schools from which scholarship recipients come. The programs also produce off-the-charts parental satisfaction rates.

Cristo Rey schools are another promising opportunity. These innovative schools were founded in Chicago in 1996 and serve disadvantaged students. Students work five full days a month for local businesses, and their pay goes directly to the schools to help cover tuition. Sixty-to-70 percent of the cost of education is covered by the work-study program, 20-30 percent by fundraising, and just 10 percent comes from tuition.

The network now includes 37 schools in 23 states. In the decade prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, 23 of the 62 Catholic schools that opened in the US were Cristo Rey schools. In addition to work-study, they offer a very rigorous curriculum, with every graduate being accepted to college in most years.

A complex array of changes has buffeted Catholic schools in recent decades, sinking them into financial crisis. But through it all, the excellence of a classical, values-based Catholic has endured.

Today, innovations like Cristo Rey schools and policy changes such as the tax credit scholarship programs enabled by the Supreme Court’s decision in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue offer not only a path to sustainability for these indispensable schools, but also a way for SPN organizations to promote and expand educational opportunity.  

Categories: Policy Solutions
Policy Issues: K-12 Education
Organization: State Policy Network