- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 30, 2008

President Bush’s brief allusion Monday night to the declining fortunes of America’s inner-city private schools during his State of the Union speech was mainly about the fast-disappearing urban Catholic academies.

“Sadly,” he said in a reference to “faith-based” institutions, “these schools are disappearing at an alarming rate in many of America’s inner cities.”

Enrollment in Catholic schools has dropped from 5.2 million in nearly 13,000 schools in 1960, to 2.3 million students in 7,500 schools in 2006, according to a study by the Hoover Institute.

What once was the world’s largest private-school system, educating one of every eight American schoolchildren, is dwindling fast. Over the past seven years, 1,025 Catholic schools have closed nationwide. In September, the Archdiocese of Washington announced it was closing eight Catholic schools, affecting 1,400 children only a few miles from the White House.

Closings of parochial schools have been especially acute in the Rust Belt and industrial corridors in the Northeast and Midwest, from which Catholic families have moved to the suburbs or to states like Florida, Georgia or Texas. In the same seven-year period, 285 schools have opened, mostly in those locales.

“The closings are hitting the inner city more than other areas,” said Brian Gray, communications staffer for the National Catholic Education Association. “People aren’t in these neighborhoods any more, and parishes have found they can only subsidize these schools to a point.”

In the 2000-01 school year, he said, the average cost of elementary-school tuition was $1,787 and the cost per student — what the school had to pay in terms of salaries, insurance and maintenance — was $2,823. Secondary-school tuition was $4,300 and the cost per student was $5,700.

By 2006-07, he said, tuition had shot up. The average elementary-school tuition was $2,607, whereas the cost per student was $4,268. Secondary-school tuition averaged $6,906 with the cost per student being $8,743.

“The secondary schools are holding their own,” he said, “but where you see the losses is in the elementary schools. Parents figure if they are going to put their money anywhere, they will use it toward a high-school education where they feel the moral and academic standards are higher for their children.”

There are other reasons for enrollment drops: competition from charter and other private schools, home schooling and various forms of distance learning. Furthermore, the overflowing convents that provided the nuns who constituted the backbone of Catholic-school education 40 years ago have long since disappeared. Lay persons, who require salaries, now do most of the teaching.

Moreover, the parishes, which used to support the schools, have passed on the costs to their diocese.

“Parishes have dwindled,” Mr. Gray said. “Resources in the parish are small and they can’t support the school. Parishioners say ‘We can’t support a school to which our children don’t go.’ ”

As mostly white Catholics have raced to the suburbs, their former schools have been filled with mostly Hispanic Catholic or black Protestant students. Twenty-seven percent of the nation’s Catholic-school students are minorities, Mr. Gray said.

“There was a saying that ‘Catholic schools are in the inner city not because the students are Catholic but because we are Catholic,’ ” he said. But just because students attend a Catholic school doesn’t mean they will convert.

“Some do,” he said. “That’d be a nice outcome but that’s not why we run the schools.”

In the nation’s booming Sun Belt, he said, there are 2,607 Catholic schools with waiting lists. In Memphis, Tenn., a group of businessmen founded the nonprofit Catholic Memphis Urban Schools Trust, which reopened a number of Catholic schools that the diocese had closed.

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