Catholic primary and secondary schools in urban areas close at an accelerated pace during the Covid-19 pandemic, leaving tens of thousands of children and their families two options: enroll their children in distant Catholic schools or enroll them in public schools, many of which are unsafe, overcrowded, or poorly performing. Black and Latino populations particularly suffer when alternatives to public schools disappear. But are Catholic school closings simply due to a lack of funds, or do the causes also include ineffective operations or poor support from the dioceses?
Over the past year, many watched in horror the Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral set on fire. Millions of people have contributed funds to rebuild the church due to its historical significance. Why isn’t there a similar effort in the United States to solicit donations for Catholic schools? Are buildings more important than children? The church rightly gives millions of dollars to feed the needy and care for the poor around the world; students in American cities deserve the same attention and compassion.
Millions of people contributed to the reconstruction of Notre Dame Cathedral due to its historical importance. Why isn’t there a similar effort to solicit donations for Catholic schools?
The New York Times recently reported that around 150 Catholic schools have closed since the start of the pandemic. As Kathy Mears, director of the National Catholic Educational Association, told The Times, “If a school was financially vulnerable, the pandemic was the thing that pushed it over the edge. My original Archdiocese of Newark, NJ, for example, closed eight primary schools in the wake of Covid-19. But Newark and other dioceses could save schools in urban communities. Several strategies could prove fruitful, including better management, transparency and the use of all available resources to ensure the continuity of Catholic education in disadvantaged communities.
In many cases, community members and parents are not aware of their Catholic school closing until a few weeks before they close, leaving little time for support and fundraising. This was the case with several parents I spoke to in the Archdiocese of Newark, who expressed frustration with the limited communication from both the Archdiocese and school principals. What’s also concerning is that fundraising campaigns for several of Newark’s public charter schools have been more visible than the church’s efforts to save its schools in urban districts. Charter school organizations such as North Star and KIPP often fundraise locally and nationally, but from what I’ve seen fundraising efforts for Catholic schools in disadvantaged areas may exist but are still struggling to ramp up during the pandemic.
Catholic school principals should be required to create and follow two-year fundraising plans to ensure financial stability. Like charter schools and magnetic schools, they should regularly survey parents and community members to find out and respond to their concerns. Distributing a survey or questionnaire to parents of children attending Catholic schools can reveal weaknesses in the school that can be effectively corrected. I have spoken to many families over the past few years who have withdrawn their child from schools (both private and public) due to the inability to solve simple problems in the learning environment.
Teachers working in schools that educate students from economically disadvantaged communities should not have to depend on tuition income for their salaries.
As for teachers, they are as vital as clergymen for the Catholic body. Teachers working in schools that educate students from economically disadvantaged communities should not have to depend on tuition income for their salaries. They should be considered missionaries, and the church itself should provide their salary.
Schools can find ways to cut expenses without reducing staff positions or salaries. For example, they can access grants by making their facilities available for ESL courses, GED courses, and after-hours college satellite courses online. Schools can also rent office space from non-profit institutions, which would provide funds for capital and operating expenses.
But closing schools in urban communities only worsens the economic conditions of marginalized populations. Again, many parents in these communities see Catholic schools as a safe alternative to overcrowded institutions that ignore children’s social, emotional and spiritual development. And from conversations I’ve had with parents of charter school students, it seems their solution to closing the achievement gap in poor neighborhoods is to bombard students with monotonous work, focused on improving standardized test results, which takes too long away from necessary social interactions with peers and families.
Given the enduring value of a Catholic education, religious leaders should reconsider plans to close schools in urban neighborhoods due to the pandemic. Parents should not have to choose between paying rent and sending their children to school where they will receive a quality education. That is why civic scholarships, fundraising goals, and church financial support need to increase. We cannot abandon the marginalized communities that Christ most wants us to support.