Advancing an Apostolate of Hope

[This] is an outstanding apostolate of hope, seeking to address the material, intellectual and spiritual needs of over three million children and students. It also provides a highly commendable opportunity for the entire Catholic community to contribute generously to the financial needs of our institutions. Their long-term sustainability must be assured. Indeed, everything possible must be done, in cooperation with the wider community, to ensure that they are accessible to people of all social and economic strata. No child should be denied his or her right to an education in faith, which in turn nurtures the soul of a nation.

- Pope Benedict XVI

On the 200th anniversary of the completion of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s completion of a small Catholic schoolhouse outside Baltimore, the words of Pope Benedict XVI are both an acclaim of and a challenge to American K-12 Catholic schools.[1] For while the institution forged by St. Elizabeth would ultimately become the progenitor of the largest private school system in the world – a national treasure that has had a unique and catalyzing impact on the civic fabric of America – many of its schools are now confronted with overwhelming and unprecedented financial challenges that threaten to destroy its extraordinary ministry.

The crisis of Catholic school closure – particularly in our inner-cities – is very real, and its effects have been devastating to American K-12 education. The system’s enrollment has declined 50% since its peak in the 1960’s, with the most troubling downtown occurring in the past decade. Since 1999, almost 1 in 5 Catholic schools has closed, and national enrollment has declined by approximately 500,000 children[2]. The most dramatic rates of closure have occurred in our urban locales, where scholars have determined them to be these schools to be most needed, as the “Catholic schools advantage” has been a proven and unparalleled educational and cultural lifeline for at-risk children.[3] It is a system under threat of extinction, and its deterioration has had tragic effects on the entire K-12 educational sector.[4]

Unfortunately, Catholic education isn’t the only faith-based school system facing an unprecedented crisis. According to the National Center for Education Statistics[5], more than 500 non-Catholic faith-based schools were closed in American inner-cities from 2000-2006. The closure rate of such schools has dramatically advanced since then. According to Vernard Gant, the Director of Urban School Services for the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI)[6], ACSI alone has reduced its school network in cities across the country from 550 to 301 in less than a decade. “As the number of poor children is increasing,” says Gant, “the number of schools that have demonstrated that they can serve these children well is dramatically decreasing.”

In response to this crisis, the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Educational Initiatives and Seton Educational Partners co-hosted an historic conversation among ecclesial, civic, and intellectual leaders on systematically protecting the faith-based school sector.[7] This conference, underwritten entirely through a generous grant from the Porticus North America Foundation, was oriented towards exploring a broad menu of financing options for revitalizing at-risk Catholic schools.

[1] http://www.emmitsburg.net/setonshrine/

[2] http://www.ncea.org/services/index.asp

[3] http://catholicschooladvantage.nd.edu/additional-resources/catholic-school-advantage--fact-sheet

[4] http://www2.ed.gov/admins/comm/choice/faithbased/index.html

[5] http://nces.ed.gov/

[6] http://www.acsi.org/

[7] “Participants” link