(RNS) Champions of Catholic education are likely to get the charming scene they hope for when hundreds of Catholic schoolchildren greet Pope Francis outside East Harlem’s Our Lady Queen of Angels school on Sept. 25.
Among the children, many of them from poor immigrant families, eight particularly articulate third- and fourth-graders will speak face-to-face with Francis on his first visit to the U.S. and convey a picture of Catholic schools as incubators of the American dream.
“I hope we get a Francis bump,” said Kevin Baxter, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. “He is absolutely helpful for all things Catholic and Catholic schools.”
Catholic schools could use the bump.
At their most popular, in the 1960s, they enrolled more than 5 million American schoolchildren. Today, it’s fewer than 2 million. In the past decade alone, more than 1,600 Catholic schools have been closed or consolidated, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.
Many factors have converged to pull families away from Catholic education. Among them:
- Fewer men and women entering the religious orders that once filled, at low cost, the ranks of Catholic school teachers.
- The rise of charter and magnet schools, a free public alternative to both traditional public schools and Catholic schools.
- Catholic schools’ tuition hikes, due to rising costs and the higher salaries that lay teachers require.
- The church’s sexual abuse scandal, which has made Catholic education less palatable for some and depleted diocesan coffers.
- Demographic shifts that pushed millions from the traditional strongholds of Catholic education in the Northeast and Midwest to the West and South, where it is less entrenched.
- Catholic assimilation: Decades ago, faced with anti-Catholicism and more attached to their ethnic enclaves, Catholics felt less comfortable in public schools.
Today, bright spots for Catholic education concentrate in archdioceses with growing, heavily Catholic Latino populations, where Catholic schools are filling their classrooms thanks to marketing campaigns that target immigrants in their native languages.
In Los Angeles, enrollments are rising and the Catholic schools website features a smiling portrait of Francis above the slogan “Welcome to the Los Angeles Catholic Schools — Where Faith and Knowledge meet.” But Superintendent Baxter knows that a papal trip — no matter how popular the pope — is no long-term plan for growth.
“We’re doing some really important things to be culturally sensitive and culturally aware with Latino families,” he said. “The stereotypical thing to say is ‘let’s do a Cinco de Mayo celebration,’ or ‘let’s do a Mexican food day’ and that’s just not going to work.”
Baxter offers a more sophisticated recruitment strategy in LA with his “madrinas” and “padrinas” — “godparents” in Spanish — who spread the word in Latino communities that Catholic schools are eager to teach their children. They also try to dispel the commonly held belief among Central and South American immigrants that Catholic schools, as is often the case in their native lands, cater only to the rich.
But Catholic school tuition, though subsidized, is still seen as expensive — especially when compared with free-of-charge public schools. Brother Robert Bimonte, president of the NCEA, said the average annual Catholic elementary school tuition is about $4,000, though the actual per-pupil cost for the school is closer to $6,000.
How do you sell Catholic education?
“We’re talking about educating the whole child — body, mind and spirit or soul,” Bimonte said. “Other schools can educate the mind. Other schools can educate the body. But they can’t educate the soul.”
And that is why Lisa Coppola, a Catholic mother of four children ages 4 to 12, said she sends them all to Catholic school.
“I love the fact that my children can go to school, and pray and worship and talk about God,” said Coppola, who lives in Syracuse, N.Y. “I love that there’s faith in their lives at school.”
Their spiritual credentials notwithstanding, Catholic educators know they still need to bring the price down to attract more families, including non-Catholics, whose children make up about 17 percent of Catholic school rosters.
Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said one way to reduce the expense of a Catholic education is to expand tax credit scholarship programs. Approved in more than a dozen states during the past decade and under consideration in several others, they allow companies and individuals to donate to scholarships for independent schools, and then deduct part of the donation from their taxes.
Critics say tax credit scholarship programs allow the wealthy to reduce their tax bills while siphoning money away from public schools, which — unlike Catholic schools, they remind — are required to educate every child.
“We need to create partnerships,” Kurtz said, promoting the tax credits. “It will always be sacrificial for a family to send their child to a Catholic school — but they can’t be alone.”
Can Francis help, and inspire more families to sacrifice for a Catholic education?
“I sure hope so. I think he certainly is going to inspire us to see children and families as precious,” Kurtz said. “Specifically to the point of Catholic school? I don’t know.”
LM/MG END MARKOE