Redemption of Catholic schools lies in resurrecting their product
The slow and steady decline of Catholic schools over the last 50 years has been well documented. Enrollment peaked at over 5.5 million K-12 students in 1965, plummeted to below 2 million by 2015, and continues to decline. More students are now homeschooled than attend Catholic school in the U.S.
Partially due to the decline of the Church and to the associated rising costs of running a school (fewer nuns, brothers, and priests available to work for next to nothing), a variety of financial solutions have materialized to help shore up Catholic education. Examples include innovative work-study programs like the Cristo Rey schools and donor-funded scholarship programs like the BASIC Fund. The most viable longterm solution to the lack of funds lies in the voting booth. Given that many parents want their children to be able to pray at the start of each class and receive religious and moral instruction as part of their formal education, school choice is a natural application of the free exercise of religion.
However, as important as the financing is, an even more fundamental problem exists: the product of Catholic education has deteriorated. For any organization, the product is at the very heart of its success or failure. A great product makes marketing, finance, hiring, and everything else easier. This applies to for-profits like technology companies and nonprofits such as schools.
Catholic schools seem to have forgotten what once made them successful. They abandoned Latin instruction, reading of classic literature, memorization of poetry, an appreciation of music and art, and rigorous mathematics. These activities not only grew their intellects, but uplifted their souls. Catholic schools abandoned the liberal arts and followed the lead of public schools down the path of worksheets, computer time, and workforce training.
Take the example of Latin. Most Catholic educators cannot explain why it is so helpful to learn this “dead” language, because they never learned it themselves, or why it used to be taught. The short answer is, it is a more effective way of learning grammar; it forms the basis of about half the English language and well over half of the romance languages; it promotes logical and rigorous thought; and it is hard, and it is good for kids to do hard things.
The good news is we are on the threshold of a renaissance of classical, liberal education within the Catholic school world. With help from the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education and other nonprofits, hundreds of Catholic schools across the country have begun the process of overhauling their curriculums and training their teachers to return to this beautiful, truth-seeking approach to education.
The return to an authentically Catholic education is critically important for two reasons. First, a true liberal arts education is superior to the more pragmatic alternatives adopted by most public and even private schools that have all jumped on the “college and career readiness” bandwagon. It is superior because its aim is higher – to form wise, virtuous students who are full of wonder, and love learning for its own sake. Second, the fact that it is so different from what public schools now provide offers parents a clearly differentiated choice when deciding where to send their kids to school.
While great progress is being made, the movement has yet to reach critical mass. What needs to happen next is for many more Catholic parents to humbly realize they likely never received the best possible education, make it a priority to give their children something far better, and demand that their pastors and bishops hire school leaders who can embrace this wonderful mission of cultivating the intellectual and moral lives of our children.
MICHAEL ORTNER is a Northern Virginia Chapter Legate and the chairman of Cana Academy, a nonprofit that trains teachers to run Socratic seminars. He lives in McLean, VA with his wife and six children, whom they homeschool.