Academic journal article Economic Inquiry

Negative Publicity and Catholic Schools

Academic journal article Economic Inquiry

Negative Publicity and Catholic Schools

Article excerpt


Catholic education makes up a large part of the United States' K-12 educational system: Catholic schools educate over one-third of all private school students, more elementary and secondary students than all other religious schools combined (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2007). However, Catholic education is becoming less prevalent. Between 1990 and 2007, the number of Catholic schools decreased by 14%, from 8,719 to 7,498, while enrollment declined by 7% from 2,498,870 to 2,320,651. (1) The mainstream media has covered this trend, beginning with closings in the early 1990s (Foderaro, 1990).

Private schools enroll 11% of elementary and secondary school students; 39% of private school students enroll in Catholic schools. (2) Catholic schools historically have served a predominantly urban, minority population with some success: research generally finds modest gains in educational attainment, particularly for minority students (e.g., Altonji et al., 2005; Evans and Schwab, 1995; Neal, 1997). There is evidence that Catholic schools raise student academic achievement and reduce adolescent risky behaviors (Figlio and Ludwig, 2000; Figlio and Stone, 2000). (3) The current decline in Catholic schooling reflects diminished opportunities for students to enroll in alternatives to public schools; this decline is particularly troubling for the low-income, urban minority students who have particularly benefited from Catholic schools in the past (Neal, 1997). The decline in private schooling options also lowers the level of competition among schools; the decrease in competition may worsen the outcomes of public school students (Hoxby, 1994).

We consider potential explanations for the decline in Catholic schooling in the United States: changing demographics, changing income levels, and public awareness of sexual abuse and allegations. Immigration into and within the United States, particularly of the traditionally Catholic Hispanic population, likely affected demand for Catholic schooling. O' Keefe (1996) suggests that falling income per capita near existing Catholic schools led to school closings. Further, the negative publicity from the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church may have impacted the availability of and demand for Catholic schooling.

Using diocese-level panel data on Catholic schooling, we empirically examine the importance of each of these factors. We develop two proxy measures of negative publicity based on the press coverage and on plausibly public notifications of abuse allegations. We find that negative publicity is associated with a reduction in the availability of Catholic schools. However, its effect is small: allegations related to the abuse cases account for about 5% of the decline in Catholic schools. Changing demographics, particularly increases in the Hispanic population, explain a larger proportion of the current decline in Catholic schooling.


The Catholic Church is organized into dioceses and archdioceses, each administered by a bishop or archbishop. There are 175 of these in the United States, with each state and the District of Columbia having at least one. Dioceses, for the most part, follow county lines. Texas, with 14, is the state that has the most dioceses. The average state has approximately 3.5 dioceses. Catholic schools tend to be operated with financial backing from the local diocese, in combination with revenue from tuition and direct donations. Diocesan support ranges from a low of around 5% of school funding coming from dioceses in the South and West to a high of about 50% in the Midwest (Gero and Meitler 2003).

Figure 1 presents the percent of school-aged children enrolled in Catholic schools and the number of Catholic schools for 1990 to 2007. (4) The number of Catholic schools declined in the early 1990s; the decline slowed in the mid-1990s and accelerated again around 2004. …

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