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America's Catholic Schools in Crisis


Tomorrow, the Pope plans to meet with the presidents of all U.S. Catholic colleges and universities, as well as Catholic school superintendents from around the country. The agenda for the meeting is unclear, but there have been worries at the Vatican that American Catholic schools do not have a strong enough religious identity.

The Pope's visit coincides with the recent report asserting that Catholic elementary and high schools are in crisis because of poor funding and shifting demographics. Thirteen hundred Catholic schools have closed since 1990. The report was compiled by the Thomas Fordham Foundation, an educational think tank in Washington, D.C.

Michael Petrilli is the vice president for national programs and policy at the Fordham Foundation. He joins me now in the studio.

Welcome to the program.

MICHAEL PETRILLI: Thanks. It's wonderful to be here.

NORRIS: Now, to say Catholic schools are in crisis...


NORRIS: ...is a very strong statement.


NORRIS: Why are they in such bad shape?

PETRILLI: Well, we see that they are closing at an alarming rate. This has been going on for many decades, but it's gone worse in recent years. Just a few years ago we saw, literally, dozens of schools closing in the New York area and Boston. Here in Washington, D.C., we see the archdiocese moving to convert seven inner city Catholic schools to charter schools, public charted schools. This sort of story is playing out around the country, and it could be pretty soon that very few urban catholic schools will be left.

NORRIS: Why are the schools closing?

PETRILLI: It's really a matter of money, and that goes back to nuns. Back in the 1950s, over 90 percent of Catholic school teachers were nuns, and that meant the Catholic schools were very inexpensive because they didn't have to pay those nuns anything. Well, the nuns have disappeared. And so now, Catholic schools have to hire lay teachers and pay them a reasonable salary and that's made Catholic schools much more expensive, that means Catholic school tuition is much more expensive, and middle-income families and, certainly, low-income families can no longer afford them.

NORRIS: Now, to what degree are the financial problems tied to the clergy sex abuse scandal, the big payouts, the bankruptcies that followed? Is there a connection there?

PETRILLI: I think there is. I think that was the final nail on the coffin that the church can no longer afford to subsidize these schools, because many dioceses were going bankrupt. But that was just the final straw.

NORRIS: This is very interesting, because for years, Catholic schools were held up as this beacon of excellence, this model that inner city public schools...


NORRIS: ...were trying to emulate.

PETRILLI: That's right, you know. Inner city Catholic schools have a long record of doing a great job educating poor and minority children, including children who are not Catholic. And the public schools, more recently, have been trying to emulate some of what Catholic schools do, making sure that every student has access to a college prep curriculum - and not something that's watered-down, having a better discipline, even school uniforms. So at the very time that we're working very hard in turning around failing public schools and creating new good schools in the inner city, we have good schools in the inner city that are closing down.

NORRIS: Now, some will look at this - and because of Fordham's position on school vouchers, some will look at this report and the argument that you're making and they'll say, this is really all about reviving the voucher to pay...


NORRIS: ...allowing students in failing public schools to use government-funded vouchers...


NORRIS: ...to attend Catholic schools.

PETRILLI: Well, in fact, what we found in the study was that school vouchers are no panacea. In Milwaukee, where there is the largest school voucher program in the country, we still see declining enrollment in Catholic schools. So vouchers alone isn't - are not the solution. In part this is because the funding for those vouchers is still too small to cover the true costs of these Catholic schools. But we do think there are some solutions out there.

You look to Wichita, for example, where the archdiocese has made Catholic education free for all Catholics. And they've done that by asking parishioners to tie the significant portion of their salary, and parishioners have been willing to do so.

NORRIS: Is it possible that people are drifting away from schools or just leaving because they don't have a strong Catholic identity themselves, they don't feel that same connection to the church as Irish immigrants or Italian...


NORRIS: ...immigrants or Polish immigrants have in the past.

PETRILLI: Sure. It's certainly possible. Although in the survey we did in our study, we found that Catholics love their Catholic schools. And they say that they would want a Catholic education for their own children. It's really a matter of money.

NORRIS: Mike Petrilli, thanks so much for coming in to talk to us.

PETRILLI: Thank you, Michele.

NORRIS: Mike Petrilli is the vice president for national programs and policy at the Fordham Foundation - that's an educational think tank in Washington, D.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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