LORD, TO WHOM SHALL WE GO?

Enrollment Loss Belies Test Score Rise

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Our wonderful principals, teachers, and students already have a week behind them as our renowned Catholic schools get back into session.

This is an appropriate moment to welcome all of them back, to thank God for the gift of the Church’s educational endeavors, and to commend all those passionate about it.

Good news abounds as the academic year commences.

You saw, I hope, the stunning results from the state administered tests:  our schools excel over all the competition! Public schools, even charters, are behind us. No surprise to those of us long aware of the excellent scholastic success of our schools, for generations.

Of those freshmen who entered a Catholic high school last week, 99% of them will graduate in four years, and 98% will go on to college.

More good news: we are able to continue keeping the costs down, without sacrificing quality. You have seen the stat: it costs a public school $25,199 each year to educate a student; it runs us $8,660.

Thanks to the generosity of our benefactors, our parishes, our archdiocese, no student has to pay that full freight. Our average elementary school tuition is $5,906.78. It’s our people, our parishes, our archdiocese that makes up the difference, while, in addition, $44,206,315 annually comes from the archdiocese, our parishes, and our acclaimed Inner-City Scholarship Fund, to provide a boost to 62,605 students.

And the spirit in our schools is reported high. Our principals, teachers, staff, and volunteers tell us the sense of common mission, cooperation, dedication, and joy is tangible.

Alleluia! All of this good news inspires me to express once again my high confidence in our Catholic schools, my eagerness to strengthen them even beyond their A+ ratings, and my aversion to close any of them. I believe our schools are one of the most effective enterprises we have, celebrated for their service to God, Church, country, and community. It has been a hallmark of our Catholic family to support them vigorously, to the point of sacrifice, and to enroll our children in them. We deeply believe they are well worth all the blood, sweat, and tears they bring...or, at least, I thought so...

Now, justice requires that I be equally blunt about the looming somber news about our cherished schools: enrollment is down.

At the close of last academic year, last June, I wrote in this column about why our schools are worrisome. One would think that the excellent academic record, respected teachers, environment of faith, character, and virtue, with revered discipline and order, would mean waiting lists to get in, as was true in the recent past.

Think that no more: the most pointed threat we face is low enrollment. Candor compels me to say it: more and more of our parents are deciding not to enroll their children in a Catholic school.

When a school closes, we all look for the blame. We can’t blame the inferiority of a school, since all our schools are good; we can’t blame the “mean old archdiocese,” since the generosity of God’s people in our archdiocese and our parishes (as well as plenty of grand people who are not even Catholic) is towering.

But I am afraid we can blame the parents who are choosing not to enroll their kids in one.

Even the Church is under the “law of supply and demand.” That means that if the demand for our schools shrinks, their supply will as well.

Why would parents not enroll their children in a Catholic school? Got me. You’d have to ask them.

I’m told it’s because of expense, although we run them so frugally and help those who can’t pay as best we can.

Others speculate it’s because parents no longer have faith formation for their children as a priority. I sure hope that’s not true.

Then I hear that the public schools in some districts are very good, plus they’re free. (They’re really not, of course, since they’re subsidized by soaring property taxes levied on everyone, even upon parents who pay tuition to send their kids to a Catholic school.) We are certainly delighted that our public schools are improving. Alleluia! Many of our Catholic children go to them, and a strong, safe, successful public school system is a sine qua non for the common good.

But, when all is said and done, there’s only one real, enduring value to our Catholic schools. That value was articulated to me last month when I visited our friends at the Bruderhof Community, who have long admired and supported our Catholic schools.

One of their leaders remarked, “We prize a first-rate education for our children. We tell them to take school very seriously, because it will prepare them for life, and give them the skills they need to flourish and be responsible.”

“But,” he went on, “it dawned on us: what are we saying to our children if they are in a school where God, faith, prayer, the Bible, and morality are not part of the ethos of the school? The answer is clear: we’re telling them that faith is not as important for a good life as science, math, history, literature, and art.  So, like you Catholics, we started our own.”

As Jesus taught, “What does it profit us if we gain the world and lose our soul!”

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