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Money & schools, Catholic & otherwise

Andrew Sullivan flags this piece from Mike Dwyer, headlined “My Complicated Relationship with Catholic Education.” It’s not about what’s taught or what isn’t, or about how best to instill in children values and traditions given insufficient weight in a secular culture. Instead it’s about what many education stories seem to be about these days: Money, the divide between the educational haves and have-nots, and the emergence of a separate class of students whose parents can afford annual tuitions approaching or exceeding $20,000 per year.

The once erroneous perception that a Catholic education was only for the well-off has now become a reality. What does this mean for a faith with deep roots in the middle class? Whereas parochial schools were the norm for most Catholic children a half-century ago, will there be a day when American Catholics become sharply divided among the haves and have-nots, with a private education being the wedge? I don’t know what the future holds for us, but right now is a time of great change for Catholic education and it remains to be seen how things will play out.

Raising two children in New York City has presented no shortage of challenges when it comes to selecting how they should be schooled; cost was a significant factor but so was belief and commitment to public education, and we were lucky enough to have landed in a district that was just beginning to see big improvement when my older child entered kindergarten. Over the years we’ve made (and continue to make) significant contributions, almost entirely in time volunteered; but these days, more and more fellow parents make significant contributions in treasure, and the effect is being felt in ways that do not always comport with my sense of what public education is supposed to mean. The calving off of some public schools into de facto private collectives funded by wealthy parent-teacher associations is to me a particularly troubling trend in public education.

Friends and fellow parishioners have made other, and understandable, choices in terms of educating their children – some selecting Catholic schools and others opting for well-known prestigious non-Catholic private schools, with prices topping $30,000 a year in some cases (and even higher in others). I can’t challenge their decisions; they’ve done what they feel is best in their situations, and having gone through it myself I’m aware of the difficulty of it, the weighing of variables and the sacrifices required. But it can make for interesting conversation around the dinner table. In trying to impart to our kids a sense of being attuned to the needs and differences of others, of the importance of the lived and experienced over the purchased and "consumed," the topic of their friends’ schooling sometimes comes up. Education – public, Catholic, non-Catholic-private – as an economic marker is something that even they are becoming aware of. 

About the Author

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.



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I haven't been to a Catholic school but I wonder if the education can be so much better than in pyblic schools - I had a friend who worked at a Catholic school and not only was he paid less than he would have been at a public school but they required less of him in qualifications ... only a BA and no credential.  And surely children aren't blank slates whose whole characters can be formed simply by what school they attend.

In France Catholic schools are relatively inexpensive because mort of them are under contract with the state, and thus receive a per-child subsidy that covers the equivalent of the per-child subsidy given in public schools. In exchange, Catholic schools must abide by their side of the contract:  follow the national public school curriculum; accept children without discriminating according to their religion (thus being Catholic makes it no more likely that a child will be accepted in the school); leave the students in freedom of religion, i.e. they cannot be required to do the sign of the cross or to go to a beginning-of-the-year Mass, for example.

The state thus subsidizes private education for at most 20% of the overall student population in France.

Then what do the parents' fees cover, and in what ways are those schools different from public schools? Well, the student-teacher ratio is slightly better than in public schools, there are some additional extra-curricular activities, and there is one hour per week of (optional) catechism. In addition, there are crosses on the classroom walls, there is a chapel with occasional (optional) prayers and Masses, a priest sometimes comes at lunch time and is available for (optional of course) confession, and there may be some (optional) school outings to religious sites. Their reputation varies from school to school, but they are typically more structured, with more discipline than in public school. 

And the result of those contracts is that Catholic schools are very affordable.

Dominic, both you and Mike Dwyer have this exactly right.  There is a class divide between those who can afford a Catholic education and those (now a clear majority) who can't.  I can't.  Most of the middle class can't.  I was able to afford it (barely) when I had fewer kids in school.  Now that they're all in school - I can't.  So my kids go to public schools K-12.  And I have a pretty good job, and my wife does, too. Parents who attended Catholic schools themselves but now are sending their own kids to public schools because it's what they can afford, sounds like a good topic for your Catholic-parents-raising-the-kids series.

I have two children in Catholic parochial school. I would be considerd moderate-income.   The Catholic school tuition is less than half what daycare would have cost for two at once, and also less than owning, maintaining and using our car (a luxury when one lives in the city).

For me, it's money well spent.   If things were tighter,  I would give up the car before I gave up the Catholic school.

Dwyer says,

 For decades parochial education was subsidized by a large supply of clergy. When most of your staff has taken a vow of poverty it certainly keeps overhead down. As the number of clergy began to dwindle in size during the 1980s, tuition rates began to creep upwards.


Subsidized by CLERGY?  No.  It was subsidized by hard-working Catholics who donated money to the parishes and by hard-working and unpaid nuns.  Nuns are not part of the clergy.  They are part of the laity.  

Clergymen did not take vows of poverty.  In a typical parish, eight or nine or more nuns lived in a crowded house, while three or four priests lived in a big house.  The nuns ate canned spinach (donated in the annual food drive), while the priests ate prime rib and drank whisky.  The nuns had no cars, but the priests had good cars.  The nuns spent their summers taking college courses.  No air conditioning.  Serge habits.  The priests went on vacations.

And the "number of clergy" (and two-thirds of the unpaid women religious who taught in the schools) "began to dwindle" in the 1960s, not "during the 1980s".  By then, it was over.  

We con't need Catholic schools.  We need Catholic parishes.

Amen to that. And an apprenticeship for disciples.

The neglect of the Catholic primary education system was one of Andrew Greeley's harshest criticisms of US bishops.  I think he was right. 

I would be interested in more information about these $20K tuition Catholic schools vis-a-vis the kinds of scholarship programs that they have to incorporate the children whose parents cannot afford anywhere near $20k a year.  Without a substantial scholarship program, I think these schools calling themselves "Catcholic" should be ashamed of themselves.

I went through 8 years of "sister school" in a rural upper Midwest parish.  The school was totally funded by that parish of farmers, blue collar workers and small business owners.  AND, of course, the virtually free labor of 8 women who had the tenacity to turn borderline savages into reasonably well educated children  (alas, no science labs) who, in many cases, went on to college and university.  Those who didn't matriculate were nonetheless well versed in the ability to read, write and perform the essential arithmetical functions that allowed them to get on with their lives.

I attended 8 years of Catholic grammar school.  It was clearly the best part of my 18 years of schooling.  

While I am only tangentially associated with parochial schools these days, I highly doubt anyone would be turned away for lack of money.  The NY archdiocese has a number of programs which provide scholarships and it is supporting under-enrolled schools.  I'd highly encourage anyone who isnt sending their children to a catholic school because of a financial to speak up.  Financial support is a fixable issue.

The real issue is that parents have made other considerations, like a commitment to public schooling, more important than sending their child to a parochial school.  If the bodies were there, the schools would be open.

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