Last month, the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) broke the news that, in 2020, Catholic schools experienced their largest enrollment decline in 50 years: a 6.4 percent drop between 2019 and 2020. At first glance, this seems a bad omen. Yet, beneath the surface of the headline are some hopeful signs. Indeed, a careful examination of the pandemic performance of Catholic schools reveals a playbook that leaders, policymakers, and philanthropists can follow to ensure access to an academically rigorous, faith-filled education for current and future generations—regardless of their income or zip code. Ultimately, the pandemic may help Catholic schools position themselves as valuable alternatives to public schools.
The Covid-19 outbreak created the most significant disruption to U.S. education in at least a century. In March 2020, as it became clearer that the virus was spreading across the country, nearly every school shut down and shifted to “remote learning.” Last fall, six months after the shutdowns began, fewer than one-fourth of students nationwide were back in classrooms five days a week; 57 percent were learning remotely full-time.
The effect of the pandemic on schools, communities, and children will be long-lasting and sometimes devastating. Perhaps the most obvious reason is the number of students who have simply disappeared from school rosters. In the fall, public, private, and Catholic schools all reported steep enrollment declines. In late December, the New York Times suggested that as many as 6 percent of public school students nationwide are not attending school at all. And early-enrollment estimates suggest that parents of pre-K and kindergarten students opted out of formal schooling in large numbers.
Declining enrollment in a pandemic is not inevitable, though. Some sectors have seen increases, including homeschooling; charter schools in some jurisdictions, including Ohio (10.6 percent) and New York City (7.7 percent); and Catholic schools in areas where families have broad access to school choice. Mounting evidence suggests that, when barriers to school choice are lowered—either by parents’ own circumstances or public policies—families will exercise their newfound freedom.
The enrollment challenges facing traditional public schools—the only sector where access and barriers to entry are never a challenge—are no surprise. Consider how few schools have opened for in-person or hybrid learning. In the fall, fewer than half (43 percent) of public schools had reopened for in-person instruction. Perhaps that helps explain why only barely one-third (36 percent) of public school parents report being “very satisfied” with their children’s schooling experience, compared with 72 percent of private school parents. By contrast, families who have been able to exercise school choice report strong satisfaction with their moves. In a January 2021 NCEA poll of almost 1,400 families across 33 states, the vast majority of families who transferred to Catholic schools this year indicated that they planned to stay in them next year. And considering the success of the effort to open Catholic schools for in-person instruction in 2020, such strong support is no surprise. Fully 92 percent of Catholic schools were open for full-time in-person instruction or “hybrid” learning at the start of 2021, and most have remained open with only minimal interruption throughout the 2020–2021 school year.
What, then, explains dire headlines warning of the largest decline in Catholic school enrollment in 50 years?
The first reason: parents decided to keep their younger kids at home. While overall enrollment did decline by 6 percent in 2020, pre-K and kindergarten accounted for nearly half (47.3 percent) of the total drop in Catholic school enrollment. That is consistent with the nationwide trend: across the country, parents of preschoolers and kindergarteners simply opted to sit this year out. An NPR survey reveals an average decline in kindergarten enrollment of 16 percent in 20 public districts it polled, while Chalkbeat reports that in the states for which it has data, drops in public kindergarten enrollment account for 30 percent of all enrollment declines.
Second, and perhaps more important, many families face unequal access to Catholic schools. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia do not offer public support for vulnerable families to access private and Catholic schools. Even among the 32 states that do have school-choice programs, those programs are not available to all.
Demand for Catholic schools is rising across the country, but translated into enrollment gains only in states where families can access public funding to send their children to private schools. In Ohio, for example, the number of students using the state’s private school scholarships to attend Catholic schools increased by 8 percent between 2019 and 2020. Even more noteworthy: the number of students accessing the state’s EdChoice Expansion program—a means-tested statewide scholarship focused explicitly on giving economically vulnerable families greater access to choice—rose by 35 percent. According to EdChoice, participation in 29 private-school-choice programs across the country increased by 2.5 percent between 2019 and 2020 with Florida, Wisconsin, and North Carolina seeing rises of 3 percent, 5 percent, and 16 percent, respectively.
Support for school-choice programs has also never been higher, according to survey data from EdChoice. Nearly three-fourths, or 73 percent, of Americans support voucher programs. Where that support is met with programs nimble enough to serve families, enrollment goes up. Indeed, in two Cleveland schools that joined the network run by my organization, Partnership Schools—one of which had been scheduled for closure in January 2020—enrollment increased by 39 percent in the 2020–2021 school year.
Notwithstanding these bright spots, the fact remains: overall Catholic school enrollment continues to decline. What is driving enrollment declines, particularly when there is such strong evidence of support for Catholic education? My organization, Partnership Schools, analyzed both publicly available data and our own enrollment data to answer that question and find ways to reverse the trend. Four lessons derived from that analysis provide a roadmap for fostering strong Catholic school enrollment gains after the pandemic subsides.
Leverage natural demand. Despite the dark cloud cast by enrollment trends, people want faith-based education. NCEA data show that the number of Catholic schools with waiting lists increased (from 28.5 percent to 39.7 percent) last year. Eight dioceses managed to lift overall enrollment in the midst of the pandemic. In Cleveland, where every family can take advantage of the Cleveland Scholarship Program, enrollment in Catholic schools that run from kindergarten through eighth grade increased by 2.1 percent overall—and by 13.9 percent in the five Catholic elementary campuses serving the city’s lowest-income northeast neighborhoods—while public school enrollment fell by 5.2 percent. Meantime, across the seven New York City schools affiliated with my organization, we receive an average of three inquiries for every open seat.
Remove barriers to entry. In jurisdictions where vulnerable families have access to private school-choice programs, those who seek Catholic education have been able to access it because the cost barrier has been lowered. In Partnership Schools’ New York City schools, privately funded scholarship programs, such as the Children’s Scholarship Fund and those funded by our own donors, help bring costs down. In states with school-choice programs, publicly funded efforts like Cleveland Scholarship Program give low-income families the same choice that wealthier ones have.
But cost is not the only barrier to Catholic school enrollment. Admissions requirements can create needless obstacles. Our analysis of our own New York schools shows that we lose 87 percent of families who are unable to fulfill paperwork requirements in the first week after their initial outreach. These requirements can be more burdensome on families seeking financial aid or a transfer from another school. Expanding Catholic school enrollment will require dismantling these barriers.
Reconnect with pre-K and kindergarten families. Nearly half of the 6.4 percent decline in overall Catholic school enrollment that the NCEA reported is concentrated in pre-K and kindergarten. Such early childhood enrollment declines are not confined to Catholic schools, but they could nonetheless be alleviated with greater awareness of the benefits of high-quality early-childhood education.
Realize that the combination of Catholic school excellence and school choice is unstoppable. In too many communities, Catholic schools operate at an enormous disadvantage compared with charter and district schools because competing with a “free” price tag is hard. Private school programs alone aren’t enough—but when paired with effective outreach from Catholic schools, they can make an enormous difference. The two Cleveland schools that joined my organization’s network in 2020 have had access to parental choice scholarships for over 20 years, yet they have seen declining enrollments and were near closure when they joined. Robust outreach and a school turnaround plan generated a rise in enrollment of 39 percent in less than one year. To thrive, Catholic schools need to combine equitable funding with access to academically excellent programs that give low-income parents the same choices as wealthier ones and productive, faith-filled school cultures.
The challenges facing Catholic schools are real but far from existential. The pandemic reminds us that Catholic schools provide an invaluable service to communities, especially in times of crisis. The work of putting these schools on the path to sustainability and excellence will be difficult—but if we build upon the lessons learned from the past year, we can be confident that success is within reach.
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