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Momentum: The Impact of Education Choice on Catholic Education

This article was originally published in the Winter 2019 edition of NCEA’s Momentum magazine.

What is the Impact of Education Choice on Catholic Education?

As America headed to mid-term election season this Fall, education choice legislative planning was placed in the hands of American voters who had decisions to make between pro-education choice and anti-education choice candidates. We are pleased to report results yielded strong supporters in key states to move education opportunity forward for our nation’s children and our Catholic mission in education. Some of these states include: Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Tennessee.

With good news on the horizon, Catholic Education Partners decided to survey how education choice has impacted our schools in the last 28 years.

Since 1990, education opportunity through programs such as vouchers, education savings accounts, tax-credit scholarships, and individual tax credits/deductions have expanded across the country. Today there are 62 programs operating in 29 states, plus Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico. Nearly 500,000 American children are accessing learning options chosen by their families through education choice programs. 

But how many of those children are going to Catholic schools? What is the impact on enrollment in their dioceses/states? How much student-directed funding from choice programs ends up at a Catholic school?

Catholic Education Partners (CEP) wanted to find out this information to better assist the Catholic community in advocating and implementing these new programs. CEP collected data from governments, dioceses, Catholic conferences, and scholarship organizations to answer those questions. The result highlights the mission-driven work of Catholic schools, the shortcomings of current choice programs, and where growth and improvement should occur.

CEP’s survey was of 28 high-impact choice programs (12 voucher, 16 scholarship tax credit) in 20 states. These 28 programs serve 358,182 students and account for 82 percent of all education choice spending in the country, or $1.8 billion out of $2.2 billion. The programs not included either had incomplete or unattainable data – although we are still working on those numbers, too.

Overall, the survey showed 39 percent of students participating in a choice program attended a Catholic school. To give this number a reference point, Catholic schools represent about 40 percent of the private school seats in the nation, but only 35 percent in the states we surveyed. This means education choice students chose Catholic schools more often than the general private school student.

Or stated differently, Catholic schools as a sector slightly outperform their private school counterparts in participation in choice programs.

Furthermore, education choice students represent between 20-25 percent of all Catholic school students in these twenty states. This shows their importance to the vitality of Catholic school systems. An exceptional case of high choice enrollment is Arizona Catholic schools, where 85 percent of students are on at least one type of choice scholarship. This is due in large part to energetic engagement in the state’s scholarship tax credit and the welcoming nature of the schools.

Another informative case is Indiana’s Choice Scholarship voucher program. The state offers about $4,300 for students from low-income families to attend a school of choice. More than 35,000 students participate, with 19,000, or 54 percent, choosing a Catholic education. This is greater than the 37 percent of private school families paying out-of-pocket to attend a Catholic school. Also, Choice Scholarship program students bring nearly $83 million in tuition with them and account for 34% of all Catholic school students in the state.

Indiana’s Catholic schools are making the effort to open their doors and extend enrollment to families in the scholarship program, which has made the program a success statewide and among Hoosier dioceses.

On average across all programs, 44% of students in a choice program attend a Catholic school, while only 38% of the general private school students chose a Catholic school, and choice program students made up 18% of Catholic school students in a state. This is good news, for it shows that Catholic schools as a group are practicing their mission to, “first and foremost…offer [their] educational service to ‘the poor or those who are deprived of family help and affection or those who are far from the faith,‘” as taught in the 1977 Vatican document The Catholic School.

While there is a lot of positive information from this survey, it also offers insight into why education choice has not solved the persistent decline in Catholic school enrollment and the financial crisis of Catholic schools. This is due, in large part, to the limited nature of these programs. The limitations for voucher programs are often by student eligibility or funding caps. Tax credit scholarship programs are intrinsically limited because they are dependent on private philanthropy; however, they are often further limited caps on the amount of scholarship funding or limited credits for benefactors.

For instance, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and the Diocese of Cleveland show the shortcomings of even the most active participation in a limited choice program. Milwaukee Catholic schools benefit from all three Wisconsin vouchers, with average voucher amounts above $7,000 per pupil. They enroll 39 percent of their students with a voucher from either the Milwaukee or Racine choice programs. But despite the Archdiocese’s participation in the program, they have closed 40 K-8 schools and seen enrollment drop by about a third since 1999.  This is likely due to the initial restrictions and slow growth of the program. When the Milwaukee voucher began in 1989, Catholic schools were unable to participate. And when Catholic schools were included as an option in 1995, only 15 pecent of the city’s student population were allowed to participate. Not until 2011 was the artificial participation cap eliminated and the income threshold raised to include a significant portion of the city’s families.

The Diocese of Cleveland has a similar story. Enacted in 1996, voucher amounts for the Cleveland Scholarship Program are only $4,650 for elementary school, significantly lower than in the Wisconsin programs. In addition, taking voucher students comes with a high regulatory cost, such as state accreditation and administering state tests. While the Diocese reports enrolling 11,000 students from Ohio’s five voucher programs in 2017-18 (25 percent of total enrollment), Catholic school enrollment since 2000 has declined almost twice as fast as the city’s population, from 38 percent to 20 percent.

In both dioceses, of course, societal and economic factors outside of the schools’ control have a large impact on enrollment. CEP plans to look further into these other factors, too. But Cleveland and Milwaukee show that even with active and long-term diocesan commitment, the objectives of reversing enrollment decline and increasing capacity remain out of reach if the program’s policies are bad for the schools, students, or philanthropists.

Overall, the nation’s education choice programs are still too small, too restricted, in too few states, and sometimes utilized too reticently to change the trajectory of Catholic schooling in the United States.

It is obvious that renewed and fervent advocacy efforts for education choice, in keeping with the U.S. bishops’ 2005 exhortation, are needed from the Catholic community if a vibrant Catholic school system that serves all comers is to remain viable. While not able to increase enrollment or fully address the fiscal crisis yet, the current education choice programs are providing life-changing experiences for participating students and in many cases slowly the school closings and decline of enrollment. Of the 62-education choice programs enacted today, most fall short of fully empowering parental choice in education in keeping with the teachings of the Catholic Church – something the Catholic community can and must work to change.

Catholic Education Partners stands at the forefront of that mission. By helping organize and activate Catholic leaders and grassroots, we are able to push the kind of societal and policy change called for by the Catholic Church. The assistance of NCEA and its membership will always be critical to these efforts and any success.

Greg Dolan