Earlier this week, the Supreme Court handed a victory to advocates of school choice and religious freedom. It ruled 6-3 in Carson v. Makin that Maine can no longer exclude religious schools from a state-funded private school tuition program. This ruling, along with 2020’s Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, clears the way for a new approach to education in America, one that ensures religious schools are no longer excluded from critical sources of funding and support.
The news from the Supreme Court couldn’t come at a more pivotal time for the nation’s Catholic schools. For a generation, the story of urban Catholic schools has been one of decline. Between 2000 and 2012, more than 1,900 Catholic schools closed down, and the closures were concentrated in underserved communities with the fewest options.
Yet, against all odds, the story is now shifting from decline to resurgence. This year, Catholic schools saw the largest year-over-year enrollment increase in two decades as parents sought out schools that are safe, open for in-person learning, and focused squarely on teaching enduring values, on forming character, and on academic rigor.
The time is now to ensure this resurgence lasts. States should allow families who choose Catholic schools access to the same educational resources and programs as families that chose secular education.
It’s often said that one unshakable fact of American life is the trust families put in their local public schools. Yet, over the past two and a half years, parents have grown increasingly frustrated, as large public districts struggled to scale remote learning, teachers’ unions fought to keep schools shuttered, and national public-school leaders try to shut parents out of critical curricular and instructional decisions.
In stark contrast, Catholic schools stepped forward to provide parents what they needed: in-person education they could count on; rigorous, content-rich instruction for their children; and a feeling of belonging and community that was lost during the pandemic. Indeed, at the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year, while only 43 percent of public schools and just 34 percent of charter schools re-opened to in-person learning, fully 92 percent of Catholic schools offered either full-time in-person or hybrid learning.
This Catholic school success in offering in-person learning was all the more remarkable because it was driven not by a big influx of federal or state dollars, but by the decision of hundreds of individual school and diocesan leaders to find a way to serve their communities.
This juxtaposition—public schools flush with cash but short on actual education, compared with scrappy, cash-poor but leadership-rich Catholic schools that stayed open through thick and thin—awakened parents to the need for school choice. Over the past two years, parents around the country have voted with their feet, fleeing public schools and landing in Catholic, private, and homeschool communities.
Indeed, as a new Manhattan Institute report details, Catholic school enrollment increased by 3.8 percent nationwide in 2021-2022—the largest year-over-year enrollment increase in this century. Every region of the country experienced an enrollment rebound in 2021, and Catholic school enrollment increased even in states that saw the overall number of school-aged children decrease. In Virginia, for instance, which became the epicenter of the national school reopening debate, Catholic school enrollment grew by almost 9 percent in 2021—one of the largest increases in the country.
When it comes to K-12 education, it is well past time for public officials to recognize the value that options play in ensuring parents’ voices are heard and children’s needs are met. Catholic schools were there when families most needed a better option, and they will continue to put kids first in the years ahead if we simply recognize they are worthy of public support.
Last week, U.S. Senators Bill Cassidy, M.D. (R-La.), Tim Scott (R-S.C.), Steve Daines (R-Mont.), and Todd Young (R-Ind.) did just that with the introduction of the Educational Choice for Children Act. After $190 billion in federal education aid to districts, the bill starts evening the playing field, providing $10 billion in annual tax credits to donors of scholarship programs for needy families seeking education alternatives. It’s an important start and one that should be supported and built upon with additional federal and state programs.
COVID-19 has changed so much about our country—how we work, how we travel, and how we educate. Let’s write a new chapter in American education, one that includes the Catholic schools which have, time and again, proven transformational in helping families achieve the American dream.
Kathleen Porter-Magee, an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is the superintendent of Partnership Schools, a network of seven urban Catholic schools in Harlem and the South Bronx.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.