Saving Catholic Schools

The likely closure of Towson Catholic High School is heartbreaking for the affected students and the entire community. Sadly, though, this is just the latest episode in the ongoing tragedy of urban Catholic education.

For decades, Catholic schools in American cities have been disappearing, but in recent years the pace has accelerated rapidly. In the last decade alone, more than 1,000 Catholic schools nationwide have closed their doors for the last time. The Archdiocese of Baltimore has lost 13 schools since 1998 (including both archdiocese-run and, like Towson Catholic, non-archdiocese-run schools).

These losses are particularly painful in our inner cities. A century ago, waves of European immigrants settled in urban America and started parishes and schools. These schools helped countless disadvantaged children escape poverty and enter the middle class. As these families gradually left for the suburbs, the schools stayed behind, serving the next generations of poor urban students, mainly African-American and Latino--and often non-Catholic--boys and girls.

This would not represent narrow state support for religious schools; on the contrary, it would demonstrate our leaders' agnosticism about who operates a school.

But with fewer parishioners and donations, the affiliated churches have become less able to support their schools, and many of their students are unable to afford the full price of tuition. For these and other reasons, urban Catholic schools find themselves financially unsustainable, and this economic downturn has only made matters worse.

Although these are religiously affiliated schools, we all should care about this phenomenon for two reasons. First, as a general rule, we should love all schools that educate students well. This is doubly true in our cities. Given the paucity of great schools in urban America, we don't have the luxury of discriminating based on provider. A great school of any type should be preserved.

Second, a significant body of research has found that Catholic schools have a remarkable ability to benefit low-income and minority students. When Catholic schools close the achievement gap, they help solve one of America's most stubborn educational, social justice and civil rights challenges.

Two things should be done. The first is symbolic. We need the state's top officials to step forward. Ideally, Gov. Martin O'Malley, himself a product of Catholic education, flanked by the state superintendent of schools, the Baltimore schools CEO and others, should make clear that Maryland supports all great schools, and that the closure of any of these--Catholic or otherwise--is a loss for the state.

This would not represent narrow state support for religious schools; on the contrary, it would demonstrate our leaders' agnosticism about who operates a school. It would show that they equally support all excellent schools--traditional public, charter public, secular private and faith-based--especially when they help our most at-risk children.

The second change is legislative. For several years, an innovative scholarship tax credit bill called BOAST (Building Opportunities for All Students and Teachers) has nearly been passed by the General Assembly. It would provide tax credits to corporations that make charitable donations to scholarship-granting organizations. If passed, this bill would have three major benefits. It would provide much-needed assistance to disadvantaged students seeking a high-quality education. It would provide a reliable stream of tuition income to financially struggling private schools. And it would avoid the ideological battles associated with vouchers because funding is coming from private sources, not the state.

Similar legislation exists in many states, including Pennsylvania, Indiana and Florida. These laws have helped educate needy children and preserve schools. Moreover, they have helped their states' public education budgets: When private schools close, public schools often absorb the displaced students, which leads to greater costs for local and state governments.

Adopting the posture and legislation advocated above merely extends to K-12 education the same understanding that has allowed the use of GI Bill benefits and Pell Grants to attend religiously affiliated universities. Neither requires abandoning or disparaging public education. (I've used these pages numerous times to support public school efforts under way in Baltimore.)

In the long term, these strategies will help ensure that more of Baltimore's students have access to high-quality schools. In the short term, they will help us avoid the sad sight of hundreds of young people deprived of a school like Towson Catholic that was serving them well.

Andy Smarick is an adjunct fellow at AEI and a distinguished visiting fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

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