Thursday, April 23, 2009

A personal look at the Catholic school crisis

My OSV Daily Take post today:

My husband and I recently had to make a very difficult decision with and for our 8-year-old daughter, who is finishing up third grade at our parish’s Catholic school. Due to a strange confluence of events, the number of girls in her class – already at an unhealthy low compared to the number of boys – was about to drop again, to only five girls in a class of 22 or so next fall.

Her two best friends are leaving, and while that isn’t reason alone to move her out of Catholic and into public school, it certainly set the wheels in motion for some serious discussion and reflection. We began weighing the benefits of her Catholic education against the negatives of being one of so few girls in a class.

The more we looked at it from every angle, the more we realized that, although Catholic schools are worth a sacrifice, there comes a time when the sacrifice may be too great. The unfortunate thing is that far too many families like ours, for one reason or another, are reaching the saturation point when it comes to the amount of sacrifice they can take on to give their children a Catholic education. You can see it in dropping enrollments, in closing schools, in the rise of charter schools, in the unwillingness and inability of even very active Catholic families to stretch beyond their financial means for a faith-based education option.

A few years ago, we made this decision in reverse. We pulled our older son out of the well-respected public school where he was very happy because we thought Catholic education made sense for our family. My husband and I both work for the Church. We are both active in our parish. Enrolling our children in Catholic school seemed like a natural extension of our faith life.

I envisioned all three of our children being in one school at the same time. I loved the close-knit school community where everyone knows everyone else. I took comfort in the fact that our children would learn about their faith in a holistic way, not just in religion class but interwoven with science and English and history and service projects.

Despite all the wonderful things that drew us to our Catholic school in the first place, however, I have to admit that there was a sense of relief when our daughter announced this week that she wants to give public school a try. Although my husband and I made sure that she did not have any sense of the financial impact one decision might have over another, we could not help but take into account the very real fact that a vote for public school would mean a significant drop in the monthly tuition bills that have had a stranglehold on our finances for several years now.

Already we have decided that our youngest, who has one more year of preschool, will not go to Catholic school because we simply cannot put ourselves through the financial and emotional uncertainty that has been part of our Catholic school experience to date. With tuition nearly doubling in just four years, we’ve been priced out of Catholic education. Unfortunately, that is the sad state of affairs for many Catholic families, families who serve on parish committees and run parish events and lector on Sundays but are effectively shut out of parish schools for purely financial reasons.

As we stand at the edge of this unexpected precipice, one where our three children will be in three different types of schools next year – Montessori, Catholic and public, I have to wonder how much longer other Catholic school families like ours can survive the tumult and tuition. If we don’t find a way to make our Catholic schools a more affordable option for average families – through government-sponsored vouchers or tax credits or through regionalization of some of our failing schools and certainly through any attempts possible to rein in rising tuition costs – our beloved Catholic schools could soon become nothing more than a footnote in Church history books. And that would be a sad day for Catholics everywhere.


Roxane B. Salonen said...

Mary, I am so right there with you on this one. We remain conflicted, and only time will tell for us, too. But the prospect of trying to make it work for five children, not to mention college beyond that, feels pretty daunting at the moment. It is so nice to know there are others who understand that this is a truly heart-wrenching decision. I am glad you feel some peace over it. I'll look forward to hearing how it goes. I'm sure it will go just fine. I do think it's time for a wakeup call here, or you're right, Catholic schools will only be an option for the wealthiest, and that is not how it all began, nor how it should be.

Anonymous said...

I know I am late to the Catholic Schools discussion, but here is a thought from my own experience. At least in the Northeast, it is hard to see how parish schools can survive very far into the future when left strictly to their own devices. Changing demographics, rising costs associated with all-lay faculties, the refusal of state governments to assist with funding -- all these things make it imperative that 1) dioceses have an overall plan for the renewal of their schoold systems, and 2)parish schools be replaced with regional schools, where all parishes in an area bear some financial responsibility for the school in their area. To expect the financial burden of a Catholic school to be borne by a single community is to ask them to take on an impossible task -- and no one should be held to the impossible.

Anonymous said...

School choice is a very difficult decision. While Catholic school has been wonderful for my 6th grader, I don't know what to do AFTER St. Thomas--it seems like Catholic high school is even more limited. Since I work for my parish, my daughter is in my local parish faith formation class--the teachers will often remark on how my daughter knows so much about the faith--I'm sure some of it is from her school, but much is at home. My concern for school is who my daughter's peers are--having a child who is 31 who went through faith formation and educated in a public school, left the faith many years ago. I think Catholic friends who are taught the authentic Catholic faith are important to helping my youngest child remain Catholic, more than where one goes to school. However, it is scary to think of certain things being taught in school these days. On high schooler I know, in Statistics class related this incident: they were to take a sample on abortion. This girl was the only one who said it was wrong and she was accused of being a "Jesus lover". She happens to be in a strong Evangelical youth group, so she was able to take the criticism. When the topics get to gay marriage, embyonic stem cell research, etc. I worry about what children are being taught. I wish our public schools were not involved in these things, then I wouldn't be so uneasy. I'm trying to trust in God to lead mein the right decision for my child.