As COVID-wary school systems across the United States scramble to start a new school year, the Catholic church is struggling to fend off a wave of school closures, the Associated Press reports.
According to officials who oversee Catholic education nationally, financial and enrollment shortfalls exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic have forced the permanent closure of more than a hundred and forty Catholic schools in 2020, many of which served low-income, African-American, and immigrant children in urban areas. And with the economic fallout of COVID-related lockdowns making it difficult if not impossible for many students’ families to pay tuition fees, the pace of closures has accelerated. In just the last month, five schools in Newark, New Jersey, and twenty-six in New York City have been targeted for closure.
In a July 30 commentary, three of the nation’s highest-ranking Catholic leaders warned that diocesan schools “are presently facing their greatest financial crisis” and hundreds more closures are likely without federal support. “Because of economic loss and uncertainty, many families are confronting the wrenching decision to pull their children out of Catholic schools,” wrote Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York; Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston; and Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).
“Catholic schools are worth saving,” they added, given that Catholic schools provide “an enormous public benefit” by educating children at half the cost of public schools, saving taxpayers $20 billion a year in per-pupil spending, while 99 percent of Catholic school students graduate from high school and 86 percent go on to a four-year college.
In an open letter to congressional leaders, USCCB leaders, including Committee on Catholic Education chair Michael C. Barber, Bishop of Oakland, called for the next stimulus package to fund emergency tuition scholarships for low-income families that could be used at Catholic or other non-public schools, which educate a combined 10 percent of all K-12 students in the United States. “For countless Americans, a Catholic education has been, and continues to be, the surest path from poverty to the middle class,” the letter states. “By equally supporting children in the non-public school community, you will maintain the integrity of those strong communities, while helping sustain the positive legacy of Catholic schools and their benefit to the common good for generations to come. Moreover, you will prevent the additional financial burdens on already strained state and local governments caused by the sudden enrollment of thousands of students whose Catholic schools had closed.”
“Catholic schools have a very profound impact on young people of low-income backgrounds, students of colour, kids from single-parent homes,” Kevin Baxter, chief innovation officer at the National Catholic Education Association, told the AP. “That makes it all the more tragic if we lose the Catholic schools that serve those populations.”