The Catholic Elephant in the Room

Why didn’t she mention it? For people familiar with the twentieth-century history of Catholic education, it looms as the biggest issue. Yet in a recent article about changing private-school enrollment in The Atlantic, Alia Wong leaves it out entirely. I’m stumped.

Students in class at St. John Villa Academy Catholic School

…or maybe it was the plaid?

Wong looks at the changing face of private education. With the dwindling enrollment in low-tuition Catholic schools, she notes, more expensive private schools are gobbling up a larger and larger share of the private-school market. The average tuition at private schools in the latest available data approached $11,000 annually. For most parents, that’s simply unaffordable.

So far, so good. If we really want to get a sense of the staggering inequalities built into America’s educational landscape, IMHO, the bigger story is the startling disparities between public schools. Even in the same city, some public schools resemble upscale educational hotels while others feel like seedy fleabags. But Wong makes a good point that private schools are becoming the province of a shrinking economic elite.

However, I can’t figure out why she left out the most obvious explanation for the shrinking of America’s Catholic school network. Here’s how she puts it,

A number of factors are contributing to the phasing-out of Catholic schools. One is a drop in the number of clergy members, who historically taught for relatively low wages. Another is the Church’s sex-abuse scandals, whose financial ramifications have undermined its ability to operate schools. In addition, demographic shifts such as falling birth rates, the growing concentration of black and Hispanic families in the bottom tier of the country’s income distribution, and a decline in religiosity among Americans, combined with the rise of charter schools, have led to lower enrollment in parochial education.

All true and important. But Wong doesn’t mention the impact of Vatican II. The public perception of the Church’s 1965 statement, Gravissimum Educationis, was that Catholic parents had been released from the requirement to send their children to Catholic schools. As the 1965 statement said,

Parents who have the primary and inalienable right and duty to educate their children must enjoy true liberty in their choice of schools.

Of course, at least as I read it, that statement is more about helping Catholic parents get a tax break to send their children to Catholic schools, but in the public eye the Vatican II agreement was often seen as freedom to attend public schools. Not surprisingly, given the choice between free-tuition public schools and low-tuition Catholic schools, huge numbers of Catholic parents began sending their children to local public schools instead.

Vatican II is not the only reason for shrinking enrollments in Catholic schools, for sure. At least in the popular understanding of American Catholic history, though, it played a huge role.

…so why wouldn’t Wong mention this epochal shift in American Catholic education? If we’re trying to understand the changing enrollment in private Catholic schools, it seems like an odd thing to leave out.

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  1. I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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