Where Have All The Catholic Schools Gone?

The Church seeks answers as rising costs and declining enrollment force consolidation throughout the state.

Illustration by Jon Krause.

Cheryll Forsatz wants her children to have the same school experience she had growing up in Passaic County. That’s why she and her husband are sending their two youngsters to Immaculate Heart of Mary School in Wayne.

“There has never been a doubt that our kids would go to Catholic school,” says Forsatz. Although she has no particular concerns about Wayne’s public schools, Forsatz values the smaller classes, respect for tradition, emphasis on discipline and spirituality, and strong sense of community that are hallmarks of a faith-based education.

The Forsatz children, one in first grade and one in pre-K, are not having exactly the same experience as their mom. That’s because her elementary school, St. Paul’s in Clifton, and her high school, Newman Prep in Wayne, no longer exist. Nor do Pope John II School in Clifton, St. Christopher’s in Parsippany, Blessed Sacrament in Margate, St. Bridget in Glassboro, St. Aedan School in Jersey City, All Saints School in Burlington, Blessed Sacrament in Newark, Holy Assumption School in Roebling, and Our Lady of Perpetual Help School in Highlands.

Since 2001, 97 of New Jersey’s Catholic schools have closed—282 since 1971, according to the National Catholic Educational Association. Total enrollment has dropped from 275,012 students in 609 Catholic schools in 1971 to 106,797 in 327 schools today.

While declining enrollment is a critical issue for the Church, it is also a concern for the state and for local municipalities, which often must bear the burden of educating additional students. Church officials estimate that, since 2001, some 40,000 students entered New Jersey’s public school system instead of attending Catholic school. New Jersey, with the nation’s highest property taxes, spends nearly $16,000 per year on each public school child, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s the second highest price tag in the country behind New York.

Catholic schools think that’s a good argument for encouraging kids to stay in faith-based schools—and they are appealing to the state to subsidize tuition. They say they can save New Jersey taxpayers money since Catholic schools spend less than $10,000 annually per student. The New Jersey Education Association, the largest teacher lobby in the state, labels the tuition-assistance plan now pending in the state Senate a scheme that would cost millions of dollars at the worst possible time.

The local Roman Catholic Church is not what it used to be. In the 1960s, New Jersey’s churches were packed. Seeing a family with four, six, eight, even ten children fill up one pew on Sunday was not uncommon, nor was it unusual for all of those children to don uniforms and go to Catholic school the next day.

Families could afford it because tuition was “practically nothing,” says Andrew Walton, spokesperson for the Diocese of Camden, which includes Atlantic, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester, and Salem counties.

Packed churches meant full collection baskets, which, in part, subsidized parish-sponsored schools where nuns and priests served as free labor.

But that model doesn’t work anymore. It doesn’t even exist. Today, only 4 percent of teachers in Catholic schools nationwide are clergy, compared with 13.3 percent in 1990 and 74 percent in 1960, according to the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA).

The decline in teaching clergy is due in large part to the steep drop in the number of nuns. As nuns—and priests—die and are not replaced by new clergy (91 percent of nuns are 60 or older), schools must hire replacement staff. Catholic schools are not required to use state-certified teachers, but they do need to pay faculty salary and benefits—something not required for clergy.

The result: The average Catholic school tuition has more than doubled since 1990. It has now reached $3,159 per elementary school student and $8,182 per high school student, according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

As costs have gone up, the number of Catholics in the state has declined slightly. About 3.6 million New Jerseyans call themselves Catholic today, according to Trinity College’s 2008 American Religious Identification Survey—down about 10,000 since 1990.

More importantly, the way Catholics practice their faith has changed. In a 2008 Gallup poll, 23 percent of Catholics nationally said they go to mass every Sunday. That’s a drop from 74 percent in 1958.
“Fewer Catholic families in the pews has meant that parish revenues that were available in the 1960s and 1970s to subsidize almost completely the cost of parents to send kids to Catholic schools is no longer available,” says Walton. As a result, many children have been priced out of a Catholic education.

“This trend has been going on for several years,” says the Most Reverend Edgar M. da Cunha, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Newark, which oversees Bergen, Hudson, Essex, and Union counties. “We’ve reached the point where the numbers are so low that we can’t keep up.”

The demand for Catholic schools still exists. A 2008 study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a nonprofit education think tank, found that 88 percent of Catholics like their Catholic schools (only 70 percent look favorably upon the current Pope), and think the schools instill moral values and offer a disciplined learning environment. Nationwide, 99 percent of Catholic school high school students graduate, and 97 percent go to college, according to the NCEA. The U.S. Department of Education pegs the national graduation rate for public high schools at approximately 75 percent.

New Jersey parents appreciate those numbers, but they sometimes find it hard to justify paying for private school on top of soaring property taxes, which fund public education for their neighbors’ kids.

“It’s a sacrifice,” says Sue Obuchowski of Maple Shade. “You’re paying school taxes, and you’re choosing not to use that school and to pay for someone else.” Obuchowski’s three children are in Catholic school—two in Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Maple Shade and one in Camden Catholic High School in Cherry Hill. She’s paying $11,890 in tuition for the 2009-2010 school year. (Families receive discounts if they have more than one child in Catholic school.)

“It is what it is,” says Forsatz of paying tuition in addition to footing the tax bill for public schools. “It stings, but you deal with it. So we do without other things. That’s the decision we made a long time ago.”
Supporters of Catholic schools see value beyond the religious aspects. At Catholic schools, there is more of an emphasis on discipline, and classes tend to be smaller than in public schools, allowing for more student-teacher interaction.

“When we offer a smaller faculty-to-student ratio, it means that kids won’t fall through the cracks,” says John Shaffer, director of public affairs and advancement for Trenton Catholic Academy, a regional Catholic pre-K through 12th grade school in Hamilton.

“It’s too easy to go to a large high school and sail through, and nobody really gets to know you. At Trenton Catholic, you can’t go through four years unnoticed.”

These benefits make Catholic schools particularly attractive in inner cities, where many minority families—some non-Catholic—seek them out as an alternative to underperforming and sometimes violent urban public schools. Ironically, Catholic school tuition can be even more onerous for these families, which often must rely on tuition assistance from the Church. Such aid is in short supply.

In Trenton, for example, about 12.9 percent of the Catholic secondary school population is non-Catholic. Of the minority students who are Catholic, most come from immigrant Hispanic families. Hispanics, the fastest growing segment of the Catholic population, represent 71 percent of the Church’s growth in the United States since 1960, according to the Conference of Bishops.

Carmen Alvarado of Camden sent the youngest three of her five children to Catholic school. The Alvarado family did not qualify for tuition assistance, so she took out loans to send her son, now 23, to St. Joseph’s Prep, an all-boys high school in Philadelphia. Alvarado made the decision after seeing her two oldest daughters struggle in Camden’s public schools, which have a 65.6 percent high school graduation rate compared to the state graduation rate of 93.1 percent.

Public school was tough on Alvarado’s oldest daughter. “She was constantly in fights, so she had to drop out of school and go to evening classes so she could get her high school diploma,” says Alvarado, who works for the Camden County Board of City Services. Her youngest daughter, 12, is a student at Holy Name in Camden.

“They get a good education,” Alvarado says. “It’s a different environment than public schools. It’s more family oriented.”

The Catholic Church is looking at two ways to adapt to the present landscape. One is to cut costs and focus resources through mergers.

In 2005, the Diocese of Trenton, which includes Mercer, Monmouth, Ocean, and Burlington counties, opened the Trenton Catholic Academy, consolidating five Trenton elementary schools that no longer exist. That left Trenton proper without a single Catholic elementary school. About 530 students attend the new academy, which is located in the former McCorriston (Catholic) High School.

The merger saved money through operational and teacher cuts and brought to one building resources that were too expensive to maintain in multiple schools: a technology department, athletics programs, and music and science programs. All 47 graduates in 2009 were accepted to college, earning $2.2 million in scholarships among them. The graduation rate for the Trenton public school district is just over 82 percent.

The Diocese of Paterson, which includes Passaic, Morris, and Sussex counties, created Alternate School Funding, a networking program that enlists successful Catholic school graduates—the program targets 34- to 45-year olds working in the financial industry—to raise money for and help market local parochial schools, especially the seventeen inner city schools in the diocese. The program, which started this year, aims to attract more students and scholarship funding to defray tuition costs.

In the Camden area, five inner-city Catholic elementary schools have moved under the Catholic School Partnership umbrella and are overseen by a five-person management team and a twelve-member board of directors. All five schools, which teach about 1,000 students, are to remain open (three of the five were at risk of closing). They are now working together as one entity to improve academics, share resources, create an endowment fund, and institute better business practices. The schools have saved 35 percent on utility and supply costs through collective purchasing. The savings have allowed the schools to invest in upgrades such as more computers and wireless Internet access. They also provide breakfast and lunch to their students.

Academically, the results have been impressive. Ninety percent of students in the five schools go on to graduate from high school, compared to 50 percent for Camden’s public elementary schools.

“Those kids are doing a lot better than students in Camden public schools,” says Christine Healey deVaull, board chair for Catholic School Partnership and executive director of the International Education Foundation, which funds the partnership through its Catholic Schools Development Program (CSDP). “We want them to be able to get into [Camden-area Catholic high schools such as] St. Joe’s Prep, to Bishop Eustace, and get scholarships to those schools. So they have to do really well. The partnership goal is to raise the bar.”

The CSDP has backed up this goal with more than $1 million in grants and pro bono consulting work since its creation in 2004. It focuses on Camden, the poorest city in the country, in part because a lot of parents there are not able to pay tuition. Eighty-six percent of its students qualify for reduced or free lunch, according to Healey deVaull.

A second strategy for the Catholic Church is to seek state financial assistance for its schools. It supports the proposed Urban Enterprise Zone Jobs Scholarship Act, a bill sponsored by State Senator Raymond Lesniak (D-Elizabeth).

The bill, which is stalled in the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, would create a five-year pilot program called the Corporate Tax Credit Scholarship Fund. The program would give tax credits to corporations that fund private-school scholarships for students who are classified as low-income—including those that attend Catholic and other faith-based schools—in eight urban enterprise zones. (The scholarship recipients could also go to another public high school that accepts out-of-district students.)

The districts are Newark, Paterson, Jersey City, Orange, Trenton, Elizabeth, Camden, and Lakewood, home to thirteen of the seventeen New Jersey schools on the Persistently Dangerous Schools list, according to the Department of Education.

The first year of the pilot program would result in $24 million in lost tax revenue but would provide scholarships for up to 4,000 students—$6,000 for primary school students and $9,000 for high school students. Up to an additional 4,000 students and $24 million would be tacked on every year for five years. Over the five years, the program would fund up to $360 million in scholarships through tax credits.

The bill is projected to save the state $17.3 million over five years in aid to the eight school districts. That means a revenue loss for those districts, but their capital spending and operating expenses—including teacher salaries and benefits—could also decrease. Lesniak argues that the support will help keep more private schools open, thus lowering the demands on the public schools.

“In five years, the state will save close to a billion dollars,” claims da Cunha, who testified on behalf of the bill in May 2008 at a Senate Economic Growth Committee hearing.

But the numbers don’t add up for the New Jersey Education Association, which has thrown its full lobbying force against the legislation, effectively stalling the bill in committee. “It just might be unconstitutional at the state level,” says Steve Wollmer, director of communications for the NJEA, citing separation of church and state.

He also questions whether the government should subsidize educational institutions that are not accountable to the state. He notes that private school teachers do not need to be certified by the state, and private schools don’t fall under No Child Left Behind. NJEA also questions church estimates of the number of students who have left private schools and entered the public school system. Their number? About 14,500.

“I don’t think the answer is to send kids to unaccountable private and religious schools, which don’t have to play by the same set of rules and try to save a few bucks by having students taught by unqualified and untrained people,” Wollmer says. Referring to the decline in Catholic school enrollment, he adds, “The market is speaking loud and clear about the vitality of parochial schools. Loud and clear.”

New Jersey’s Catholic schools also could become charter schools, which would make them eligible for federal aid, but that would mean detaching themselves from religious teaching. The majority of New Jersey Catholics oppose such a move.

New Jersey’s incoming governor could help advance the scholarship act. Chris Christie is a vocal advocate of the tuition tax credits concept, and campaigned in part on a platform of education reform. In his post-election day speech, Christie—whose own children attend Catholic schools—vowed to support urban education choice, including a voucher program for private education. A battle is clearly brewing. ■

South Jersey bureau chief Jen A. Miller attended K-6th grade at St. Francis de Sales in Barrington. After a 2008 merger, the school closed its doors in June 2009.

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