With funding for DC Opportunity Scholarships restored to the adopted federal budget, thousands of low-income minority children in the nation’s capital will be able to stay in schools that serve them better than failing public schools.
In addition to benefiting needy children, the voucher program provides tuition support for endangered Catholic schools that have educated the poor for more than 100 years. Unfortunately, those schools have been hemorrhaging students for 40 years, and we now risk seeing the whole system collapse. That would be a tragedy for all our inner cities.
Education philanthropists have been showering money on publicly funded charter schools while often taking their eyes off the big picture. What’s missing, however, is the fact that for every new charter school opened recently, two Catholic schools have closed because of financial trouble. The result: A net loss of good inner-city schools.
To see what’s at stake, consider St. Aloysius, a Catholic elementary school located in a red-brick building in New York City’s central Harlem. Founded by Jesuit parish priests 70 years ago, St. Aloysius first provided a haven for working-class Italian and Irish immigrant families.
It then kept its doors open long after the Harlem community turned overwhelmingly black and non-Catholic. Almost all of St. Aloysius’ students are black and from low-income families; two-thirds are not even Catholic.
Against overwhelming odds, the school has continued to produce academic outcomes equally as impressive as the most celebrated of charter schools. Yet the school remains 35 students short of enrollment capacity.
A few blocks away from St. Aloysius, Rice High School, the only Catholic secondary school in Harlem, struggles to survive.
The empty seats at these schools reflect the financial storm that has lately battered all Catholic schools.
As research has shown, Catholic schools do a stellar job of educating the urban poor. In New York City, for instance, parochial students consistently outscore their public school counterparts on city and state tests.
Should the Catholic schools collapse, taxpayers would be liable for the cost of educating New York state’s Catholic school students in the public system, which is estimated at more than $3 billion per year.
In recent years, urban dioceses across the country have concocted strategic plans, trying to reverse the downward spiral. The most ambitious is “Pathways to Excellence,” which the Archdiocese of New York unveiled in October. Pathways would replace a parish-run, tuition-dependent model with what it calls “regionalization.”
Parochial schools will be divided into five or more geographic regions, each governed by an archdiocese-supervised board of education. Costs will be spread among all 2.5 million Catholics in the archdiocese.
A long-term national budget crisis is just beginning, and public school districts are already considering doubling class sizes and canceling sports programs. In those circumstances, Catholic schools could become increasingly appealing — provided, of course, that they manage to keep their doors open.
Patrick McCloskey is a journalist and the author of “The Street Stops Here,” about inner-city Catholic education. Sol Stern is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal and the author of “Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice.” This article was adapted from the spring issue of City Journal.