The June 30 Supreme Court decision in Espinoza v. Montana Dept. of Revenue is a cause for celebration. It goes against the Blaine Amendment, a failed amendment to the Constitution typical of the anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic bigotry of the 1880s. That amendment was supposed to stop government funding of Catholic schools. While it ultimately failed, 37 states have adopted laws that mirror it.
At the time, public schools in the United States were deeply influenced by Protestant denominations. That was one of the reasons for the creation of Catholic private schools. The Blaine Amendment laws were designed to curtail the establishments of Catholic schools that served the emerging Irish and Italian immigrant Catholic communities.
The Supreme Court has now put an end to this relic of anti-Catholic bigotry. Maybe it was too little, too late. Just nine days later, the Diocese of Brooklyn announced “six Catholic academies in Brooklyn and Queens will close due to financial strain resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.” That same day, the Archdiocese of New York announced 20 of its Catholic schools won’t reopen and three will merge “in wake of COVID-19.”
During the previous weeks, other dioceses across the country had announced the closing of 98 Catholic schools.
The news — 124 Catholic schools gone in three months — is devastating but not surprising. In 1970, there were 11,000 Catholic schools in the United States. Today, the number is just 6,000. There are several reasons for this.
There were 180,000 women religious in the United States in 1965. By 2019, there were 31,350. Women religious were the backbone of Catholic education. Women religious filled the faculties of those schools. They offered solid education, ensured the Catholic identity of the schools, and since they didn’t receive a regular salary, kept the tuition affordable for the poor communities they usually served.
Once women religious became a minority in our schools’ faculties, the Catholic school’s economic model became unstable and sometimes unsustainable. Many Catholic immigrants — always a strong presence in Catholic schools — couldn’t afford the tuition any longer.
Demographic changes also affect Catholic schools. In our cities, traditional immigrant neighborhoods sometimes go through a gentrification process. The new neighbors don’t belong to the traditional Catholic communities and don’t send their kids to Catholic schools.
The secularization process that has been taking place in our society for the last five decades added another challenge. An increasingly anti-religious sentiment among cultural elites has changed the way many people perceive the benefits of a faith-based education.
The results are disheartening. Catholics schools are not closing for lack of educational success — 99% of Catholic high school students graduate within four years, while New York City high schools had a rate of 75.9% in 2018.
Archbishop José Gómez of Los Angeles said recently, “the loss of Catholic schools would be an American tragedy. It would set back opportunities for generations of children living in low-income and inner-city neighborhoods.”
It would also be a Catholic tragedy. The Catholic community in the U.S. — more than 70 million people — would lose an essential part of its soul and its future without Catholic schools. In an increasingly intolerant culture, it would be an irreparable loss for our society.
The Diocese of Brooklyn has gone through continuous efforts to keep schools open and to help them succeed. Futures in Education, which provides tuition assistance to low-income families in Catholic schools and academies in Brooklyn and Queens, has awarded scholarships to 32,000 students over the past 31 years. DeSales Media Group, the parent company of The Tablet, donates $2.5 million to Futures in Education each year.
The recent decision of the Supreme Court is not just a triumph over bigotry but also a new hope for the future of Catholic education.