What is the purpose of Catholic education?
The most basic response to this question is to form people in their Catholic faith and to prepare them to live out their call to Christian discipleship. This response treats Catholic education as a catechetical exercise. That is, its focus is primarily on persons who are already baptized Christians. It is not meant to be a form of evangelization, though it can be. Catholic education strives for the integral formation of the human person, a formation that looks toward the person’s end, while at the same time it also looks to the common good of societies, children and young people, so that they can develop their physical, moral and intellectual talents. It is to assist them in the correct use of freedom and to participate in social life. Catholic education is to address the spiritual needs of the individual, as well as the range of social needs necessary for the common good.
Given these broad goals for Catholic education, our Catholic school systems are being pulled in many different directions. There is the desire to serve the poor and marginalized. There is the tradition of Catholic education to prepare young men and women for positions of leadership in society. There is also the fiscal reality that whatever goals are pursued, it costs money.
Catholic schools in the United States were primarily an effort by Catholic communities to support and help integrate the hordes of European immigrants that washed up on our shores during the 19th century. These immigrants were mostly Catholic and the central institution in those immigrant communities was the Church. Parish schools were the ideal way to support the immigrant communities, educate their children and maintain a strong church community.
This was the dominant model for Catholic education in the States until after World War II. By that time Catholics were integrated, for the most part, into American society and the parishes were becoming increasingly ethnically mixed.
I grew up in Rochester, New York, in the inner city where my family had lived for generations. The neighborhood was primarily Italian, German and Polish. We lived around the block from SS Peter and Paul Church and attended the parish school. This was the same school that my father attended when he was a child. We even had a picture of him as a scruffy third grader sitting at a school desk in the same room I inhabited when I was in third grade a generation later. Most of my friends at school were neighborhood kids.
After World War II the neighborhood began to change. Young couples were buying cars and moving to the suburbs. It wasn’t as congested as the inner city and there was more room in which the kids could run around. In many minds, moving to the suburbs was a sign of moving up in the community. Immigrants continued to flow into the inner city but now it was African-Americans from the southern states, who were moving north in search of jobs, as well as Hispanic migrants. These newer additions to the neighborhood were not as tied in to the inner-city parishes as their predecessors. In addition, many Catholic pastors didn’t know how to relate to these new communities, so they were poorly integrated into the parish communities. One consequence was that by the time my younger brother graduated from the parish elementary school, ten years after my graduation, its doors closed, and the school building was converted into low cost housing and a neighborhood clinic. The parish school was no longer financially viable. This was a common concern among many of the parish elementary schools in the Diocese.
The situation has not improved. While many inner-city schools shut down around mid-20th century, suburban parishes were growing and adding schools. This continued for several decades but by the end of the 20th century even the suburban parishes experienced the loss of schools. Some of this was due to the drifting away of youth from the Catholic community, as well as the sharply rising cost of Catholic education. While there are some noble attempts to keep schools open, both in the inner-city and the suburbs, the most common phenomenon in recent decades has been the consolidation of parishes and schools in order to maintain a viable balance between facilities to be maintained and the population needed to support them.
The cost of Catholic education has risen sharply over the years. When I was in elementary school my parents paid in the range of $10.00 per month for my tuition. My high school tuition was about $100.00 per month and I had an after-school job at the school helping the janitorial staff clean up which covered about a quarter of the tuition. Education costs across the board were a lot cheaper back then. I went to a public college for my BA degree and ended up with only about $10,000. In debt for a four-year education. A couple of years ago one of my children racked up that much student load debt for only one semester of college. That same child attended a Catholic elementary school a few years earlier and his tuition per year was about $2,300. When he attended a Catholic high school, the tuition per year was about $10,000.
Few parents can afford the tuition for a Catholic education any longer. One result is that many no longer consider Catholic education as a viable option for their children. In many places the public schools are supported by school tax, which means that the average parent is paying around a thousand dollars or more each year to support public schools, while receiving no direct benefit from this tax responsibility. The parents still have the added burden of the Catholic school tuition. This further shrinks the student tuition base supporting the school.
You can’t entirely fault the schools for the increase. It is expensive to operate a school. No longer can the schools rely on religious sisters who teach for a token salary. There are fewer sisters available to teach and they must be paid a living wage, not only out of justice but because their income supports a community of sisters, some of whom are elderly and ill. The lack of sisters to teach means that a school must hire lay teachers and administrators, who also require a living wage. There are school facilities to maintain, increasing levels of educational technology to purchase, insurance to cover liability and general inflation.