Catholic schools - American EducationSchools operated by or affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church or its representatives. Currently the largest group of religious schools, Catholic schools were slow to develop in the American colonies because of the predominance of Protestants and their pervasive, often violent prejudice against Catholics. Even the oldest continuously operated Catholic schools can trace their origins no further back than the 19th century. Although some Spanish Franciscans, Dominicans and Jesuits had settled in the southeastern and southwestern portions of what is now the United States, only nine of the 260 churches in the English colonies in 1689 were Roman Catholic. The rest were Protestant. The first Catholic see was not established in the United States (or the American colonies, for that matter) until 1790, when John Carroll was named the first American Catholic bishop in Baltimore. The first two Roman Catholic schools opened in New York at St. Peter’s Church, in 1801, and St. Patrick’s Church (now Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral), in 1815.
At the time, New York State was funneling public funds into common (public) schools run by Protestant churches, and New York’s Catholic schools sought their share of those monies. Their request, however, caused a furor among Protestant legislators, who feared Jewish congregations might request similar educational financing. The legislature solved the problem in 1841 by denying all public funds to any school “in which any religious sectarian doctrine or tenet shall be taught, inculcated or practiced. . . .” Although other states followed suit, the new laws were less than effective at the classroom level, where teachers, usually Protestant, integrated their version of Christianity into the American history curriculum.
Fearful that the public school Americanization process would Protestantize Catholic immigrant children, the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore decided to establish a Catholic school system. In 1884, it issued a mandatory and universal policy ordering every Catholic church in the United States that did not already have one to build a parochial school. Other decrees called for the construction of Catholic high schools, academies, colleges and the creation of diocesan boards of education to run the schools. To crown its new educational system, the council ordered construction of a Catholic University of America, which opened in Washington, D.C., in 1887. The council also ordered all Catholic parents in the United States to send their children to Catholic schools unless specifically released from that obligation by the diocese. The order remained in effect until 1960.
The inevitable process of Americanization, however, made the goal almost impossible, and even where Catholic parents ardently favored sending their children to Catholic school, lingering ethnic hatreds from Europe often made it impossible for them to do so. Lithuanians, for example, refused to put their children in the hands of Polish priests. The Irish wanted their children taught by Irish priests, the Germans by German priests, and so on. By 1887, when the decrees of the Plenary Council were to have become law, there were 35 different ethnic parishes in Chicago alone. In addition, the issue of educating girls was also creating bitter differences in the church and, in turn, in the Catholic educational system. Rather than cope with these conflicts, many devout Catholics turned to non-sectarian public and private education and restricted the church’s role in the upbringing of their children to spiritual education.
Nevertheless, the Catholic education system remained a powerful force in American education. By 1960, the Catholic population had climbed to 42 million. The school system had almost 13,000 elementary and secondary schools, with a student population of about 5.25 million students. In addition, the church boasted nearly 400 colleges, ranging from small institutions for sisters and brothers to giant universities such as Notre Dame, Fordham and the Catholic University of America. Since its peak in 1960, however, the Catholic educational system has contracted. For one thing, millions of urban Catholics joined Protestants and Jews in the mass migration to the suburbs, where there was a dearth of religious schools. Moreover, high suburban property taxes made it more economical to send children to local public schools rather than incur duplicate costs of paying school taxes and Catholic school tuition.
As Americanized urban Catholics abandoned their city parishes and parochial schools, a new wave of Catholic immigrants arrived from abroad—mostly semiliterate, usually Spanish-speaking and too poor to support local Catholic churches and parish schools. Many schools simply closed. Others suffered declines in academic standards because they were no longer able to pay high enough salaries to attract the most qualified teachers. By 2005, fewer than 6,600 Catholic elementary schools and just over 1,200 high schools remained, and the student population had dropped to about 2,420,000—13.6% of them non-Catholics. Only about 10% of Catholic children in the United States still attend Catholic schools. In many inner-city neighborhoods long since abandoned by white Catholics, the few remaining Catholic schools often have student populations that are 65% or more non-Catholic. Nationally, minorities make up more than 27% of students—nearly three times the number 30 years ago. Hispanics make up nearly 12% of students, blacks nearly 8%, and Asians nearly 4%.
There are four types of Catholic schools: parochial (usually elementary) neighborhood schools run by the local parish priest; interparish schools cooperatively run by several parishes; diocesan schools (usually high schools) run by a school board appointed by the diocese; and private schools (usually college preparatory, academy-type schools) run independently of the church by a devoutly Catholic board of trustees. In almost every category of achievement, students in Catholic schools outperform their counterparts in public schools, although costs per pupil are about the same. Catholic high school drop-out rates average less than 2%, compared with 10.7% for public schools. About 97% of Catholic school children go on to college, compared with only 65.9% of public school children. Traditionally, Catholic school students have scored an average of 5% to 10% higher than same-age public school students on proficiency tests for most academic disciplines and about 20% higher on college admissions tests, but state and local governments, as well as college admissions testing organizations, have stopped breaking down and reporting such results on the basis of religion.
There are several reasons for Catholicschool educational successes. Like all private schools, they refuse to admit unruly, disruptive children. Unlike public schools, with “cafeteria- style” curricula of 200 or more courses for a wide range of students, Catholic schools offer only a basic core curriculum of required courses such as English, mathematics, science, social studies and foreign languages.
Besides Catholic University of America, which is under direct control of the church, there were 237 Roman Catholic colleges and universities in 2001, all of them directed by Catholic clerics or Catholic laymen but with no direct, official ties to the church. All offer a broad enough range of secular studies to compete with comparable nondenominational institutions of higher learning. With 650,000 students—many of them non-Catholic—such universities and colleges offer a mixed curriculum, whereby secular studies are taught in an atmosphere of academic freedom, while theology courses are dictated by the church and the colleges must certify that all theology courses teach “authentic Catholic doctrine.”