Here’s some arguably good news in an otherwise awful year: Catholic schools have seen their biggest single-year drop in enrollment (6.4%) in at least 50 years.
Between the 2019-2020 school year and the current year, nationwide enrollment dropped by 110,000 to about 1.6 million students. Back in the 1960s, enrollment was more than 5 million.
With the recent wave of closures, there are now 5,981 Catholic schools in the United States, compared with more than 11,000 in 1970.
The reasons for the closures include COVID concerns, obviously, but also decreased interest in Catholic schools in places and within communities where there are other options.
Indeed, some of the largest enrollment losses were in big-city dioceses, including 12.3% in Los Angeles, 11.1% in New York and 8.2% in Chicago.
The NCEA doesn’t get into why the drop has occurred, and there are a variety of factors that might lead to the decline, including tuition fees, but you have to wonder how much of the drop can be traced back to the sexual abuse and lawsuits and open bigotry against LGBTQ people. There are generations of newer parents who might have enrolled their kids in Catholic schools who grew up never knowing a Catholic Church that wasn’t mired in scandal. (It’s like Millennials born in the 1980s who have never known a Republican Party that wasn’t batshit insane.) Even if you’re culturally Catholic, why would you give money to an institution that has caused so much harm in the world?
(The Church has enough money. Hearing them complain about a drop in tuition dollars is like Jeff Bezos complaining when a store won’t accept his coupon. If anything, the Church should be paying students to go to their schools.)
To be sure, there are excellent Catholic schools — and plenty of graduates of those institutions who have nothing but positive experiences of their time there. Those schools can also serve as a symbol of pride in hard-pressed communities. But on the whole, the Catholic brand isn’t exactly a great selling point anymore.
The drop in enrollment goes far beyond the effects of COVID. Even when schools are back in session, a lot of Catholic schools won’t need to open their doors again. My heart goes out to teachers who end up out of work, but if those closures mean more support for local public schools that aren’t steeped in harmful religious doctrine, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
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