The Lack of Consensus among Catholics for Establishing New Elementary Schools

By Cieslak, Michael J. | Catholic Education, December 2006 | Go to article overview

The Lack of Consensus among Catholics for Establishing New Elementary Schools


Cieslak, Michael J., Catholic Education


For a century Catholic schools have formed the basis for a strong system of acculturation into Catholic identity and values. Catholic schools provided a low-cost basic education and served as a common school for all social classes of Catholics. This system has weakened considerably in the last decades. Between 1970 and 2000 there was a net loss of 3,595 Catholic schools in the United States, a 29.9% decline. In addition, the nature of these schools seems to be changing as the percentage of total Catholic school enrollment made up by non-Catholics has increased ten-fold in 30 years. Many Catholic schools seem to have pursued increased academic excellence at the expense of religious acculturation. This paper examines diocesan data to determine the extent to which Catholics still consider Catholic elementary schools to be important. Findings include survey data on school importance from 55,000 diocesan Catholics. In addition, parishioner survey results are presented from two suburban parishes, each of which is considering establishing a parochial elementary school. If new elementary schools are going to be established, a way must be found for Catholics to arrive at a consensus on this issue.

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For most Catholics over the age of 50, the presence of Catholic elementary schools was often taken for granted. In 1852 the First Plenary Council of Baltimore urged every Catholic parish in the United States to establish a school. Due in part to the numbers of religious sisters that became available for educational ministry, schools were established at a rapid pace. By 1900 about 3,500 parochial schools were in existence. Within 20 years, there were 6,551 schools, with 41,581 teachers instructing 1,759,673 pupils. By the mid-1960s, there were 4.5 million elementary Catholic school pupils, an all-time high (National Catholic Educational Association, n.d., pp.12-17).

Since this zenith point of enrollment, fewer children are enrolling in fewer Catholic schools. Between 1970 and 2000 Catholic elementary school enrollment has declined by 44.5%, a loss of 1.6 million students. While some of this decline is undoubtedly due to the baby boomers exiting the school system, demographics do not explain the whole change. If the decline were primarily due to a general decrease in the school-age population--presuming a fairly constant Catholic percentage of the population--one would expect to see a similar decline in public schools. Yet in the same 30-year period public elementary school enrollment increased by 3% (National Center for Education Statistics, 2004a, p.1).

Data from the Official Catholic Directory show that between 1970 and 2000 there was a net loss of 3,595 Catholic schools in the United States, a 29.9% decline. In its 2004 report, the National Catholic Educational Association noted that, while 34 new Catholic schools were opened in the last school year, there was a net loss of 45 schools. Catholic school enrollment is 2,484,252, a 2.7% decrease over one year. The NCEA pointed out, however, that one-third of schools have waiting lists (National Catholic Educational Association, 2004, pp.1-5).

Why are there waiting lists when enrollment is decreasing? Due to demographic changes and population shifts, there are Catholic schools in urban areas without a nearby Catholic population to support them. Meanwhile, newer suburban areas are lacking schools though there are thousands of potential students. This situation has captured the attention of the U.S. Catholic Bishops, who wrote, "Our challenge today is to provide schools close to where our Catholic people live. In areas where there currently are no Catholic schools, we should open schools that have a mission to evangelize. We also need to consider providing new or expanded facilities where we currently have schools with waiting lists" (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2005).

Clearly, much has changed over the past 30-40 years to bring about this situation. …

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