Grim statistics on Catholic school enrollment aren’t hard to come by. The number of children enrolled in Catholic schools has been dropping for decades, falling by nearly half a million — almost 25 percent — in the last 10 years alone. 

But that’s not the whole story. 

In some dioceses, enrollment has stabilized and is even growing — even among inner-city students, the group hardest hit by declines in Catholic education. The key, according to educators in those dioceses, is to find ways to keep a Catholic education accessible while making sure it is attractive to families because of the values it instills. 

Father Ron Nuzzi of the Alliance for Catholic Education at the University of Notre Dame said the most successful Catholic school systems are those that provide the best, most authentically Catholic education. 

“The best attraction is running a high-quality school and running an authentically Catholic school,” he told Our Sunday Visitor. “And I would not dichotomize that. A strong Catholic identity includes a high-quality education; that’s part of what it means to be Catholic.” 

Public funding 

Father Nuzzi said perhaps the best hope for keeping schools accessible to families will be increasing public funding for private schools, whether through vouchers, tax credits or other mechanisms. Individual choice has become a cultural touchstone, making it more likely that state legislatures will find school choice acceptable. But it will not be a simple or short-term solution, he said. 

“Because education is primarily controlled by the states and not the federal government, it’s a battle you have to fight 50 times,” he said. 

But for states with vouchers, it’s a financial winner, because parents typically receive vouchers worth much less than the state’s cost to educate children in public schools. 

Arizona has had a tax-credit program since 1998 that allows individuals and corporations to divert some portion of their state taxes into a scholarship fund for a particular school. The U.S. Supreme Court heard a challenge to the law in November (see sidebar below). 

That program has helped keep enrollment stable at a time when the economy in Phoenix is among the worst in the nation, said MaryBeth Mueller, the diocesan school superintendent. This year the diocese’s Catholic school enrollment declined 3 percent, but Mueller said it would have been worse without the $10 million generated by the tax credit. The schools also benefited from an $8 million grant from the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust for capital improvements. 

Success stories 

In the Archdiocese of Chicago, overall elementary school enrollment declined from 62,806 to 62,274 — a drop of less than 1 percent. But schools within the city limits, and those with a higher proportion of low-income students, saw enrollments increase. 

Archdiocesan school leaders attribute the increase to teaching schools how to better tell their stories — led by Springfield Dominican Sister Mary Paul McCaughey, who shares the story of Catholic school success every chance she gets.  

“It does make a difference in what kind of culture a student is educated,” she said. “Faith, morality, enduring values — what we have is priceless here. The research shows we are great. I don’t have to make this up.” 

Two newly hired enrollment marketing consultants are available to help, and schools also can participate in the AMEN network, a hub for them to share best practices for increasing enrollment. The Big Shoulders Fund, a nonprofit organization that supports inner-city Catholic schools, also has emphasized the importance of increasing enrollment in the schools where it works, and shares the ideas that work best with all schools. 

Schools are also finding success with targeted financial aid for students. 

Scholarships as low as a few hundred dollars a year can make the difference for families keeping children in Catholic schools, Sister Paul said. 

Ryan Blackburn, the director of marketing and communication for the Office of Catholic Schools in the Archdiocese of Chicago, said it’s important that neighboring schools not see themselves in competition. 

“It’s not a message of scarcity,” he said. “The message is more students in more good Catholic schools. We know there are plenty of families who, if we are able to engage them in what we are trying to do, would be interested in our schools. We offer a very solid academic and faith-filled experience for families.” 

Growing population 

That’s the message that Michael Fedewa, the superintendent of Catholic schools in the Diocese of Raleigh, N.C., emphasizes as well. He has seen the enrollment in Catholic schools rise by 360 students in the last five years, from 8,624 to 8,984.  

Much of the enrollment increase can be attributed to a significant increase in the diocese’s Catholic population. 

“When I moved to North Carolina in 1981, this was considered mission territory,” he said. “Less than 1 percent of the population was Catholic. We’re up over 4 percent now, and in the Research Triangle [the area bounded by Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill] it’s 10 to 15 percent.” 

Schools in the diocese use a variety of funding mechanisms, from the traditional parochial model, where both the parish and the parents pay for the school, to a cost-based model where parents are asked to pay the total cost. In one area, two schools serving three parishes are governed by a board of specified jurisdiction, and all the parishes in the Raleigh-Piedmont deanery support Cardinal Gibbons High School. 

“The lesson from that is you have to be creative here,” Fedewa told OSV. 

The best antidote is to get the word about the value of Catholic education out to parents. It also is the best way to ensure the survival of the Church. 

“We know that kids who go to Catholic school are more likely to be practicing Catholics as adults,” he said. “We’ve got to make our schools so good and so powerful in terms of faith formation and academic excellence that parents can’t afford not to send their kids to Catholic schools.” 

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.

Tax Credit Challenge (sidebar)

Arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court Nov. 3 about the constitutionality of Arizona’s tax-credit law focused on whether the credits are diverting government money to private — including religious — schools or are an opportunity for taxpayers to provide charitable donations to private-school parents. In general, the court has held it unconstitutional for government money to support religious schools. 

Four Arizona taxpayers sued, saying the program violates the separation of church and state. If Arizona’s system is upheld, some legal observers say, it could encourage more tax credits that benefit religious organizations. 

Related reading

Archbishop Timothy Dolan on why Catholic education matters. In Focus, Pages 9-12