A Well-Deserved Glimmer of Hope for Massachusetts Catholic Schools

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This op-ed, written by Chris Sinacola and Cara Stillings Candal, was originally published on RealClearPolicy.com.

Enrollment in Archdiocese of Boston schools has increased by about 4,000 students during the COVID-19 pandemic. Combine that with a 2020 U.S. Supreme Court case that makes it easier to support the schools and it adds up to a well-deserved glimmer of hope for Catholic schools that have fallen on hard times despite their outstanding performance.

The number of Catholic schools in Boston has fallen from 225 in 1942 to 100 in 2020. Statewide, Catholic school closings have had a disproportionate impact on poor and working-class communities like Boston, Chelsea and Lowell.

There are a number of reasons for the decline. Expenses rose when numbers of nuns and priests, who once provided almost free labor, dropped precipitously in the 1960s and ’70s. Schools are now staffed with laypeople who depend on their wages to live.

During the 1970s, Boston’s busing crisis accelerated the trend of Irish and Italian families moving to the suburbs. Many of these families, whose children attended Catholic schools, were more comfortable enrolling their children in suburban public schools.

Quality and value are not behind the enrollment decline. In addition to higher test scores and graduation rates, 96 percent of Archdiocese school graduates attend college, compared to 79 percent at Boston Public Schools. The differences can’t just be attributed to demographics, as the majority of elementary schools in the Archdiocese of Boston are in urban areas and disproportionately serve poor and minority families.

Catholic schools achieve these results with far fewer resources. Average annual tuition at an Archdiocese of Boston elementary school is $6,583, and most families receive financial aid. The schools rely on charitable donations to fill the gap between revenues and costs, but overall expenditures are still well below average public school per-pupil spending in Massachusetts, which is nearly $16,500.

Parents are drawn to the unrelenting focus on achievement, a classic liberal arts education, discipline, and values that are hallmarks of a Catholic education. That explains why nearly 20 percent of the students enrolled in Archdiocese schools aren’t Catholic.

Last year, in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the U.S. Supreme Court limited the impact of so-called Blaine Amendments to the constitutions of Massachusetts and many other states. The amendments were the product of anti-Catholic bias and prohibit public money from flowing to religious schools.  The justices held that if a state decides to direct aid to non-government institutions, it cannot exclude faith-based institutions from that aid solely because they are faith-based.

The ruling enables creation of a tax credit scholarship program in MassachusettsUnder these programs, taxpayers receive credits for contributions to scholarship-granting organizations that provide students with funding to attend schools other than their assigned public school. There are 24 such programs in 19 states, including New Hampshire and Rhode Island. The programs, almost all of which are need-based, serve more than 300,000 students.

A recently proposed program would set eligibility at 250 percent of the federal poverty line ($65,500 for a Massachusetts family of four in 2020). It would provide 10,000 tax-credit scholarships to qualifying families — averaging $4,050 in the first year and rising with inflation. Donors to scholarship granting organizations would receive a 90 percent tax credit. The program would either be revenue neutral or save money for the state and would produce savings for school districts

A consensus of high-quality research finds that tax credit programs produce better test scores as well as higher graduation and college attendance rates. In addition, 25 out of 27 studies in one recent literature review found that the incentive to compete for students produced better outcomes at the public schools from which scholarship recipients come.

The program would also promote equity. In addition to tuition, Catholic school parents pay taxes to support schools their children don’t attend, saving state and local taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Espinoza provides Massachusetts policy makers with a chance to help stabilize the Commonwealth’s struggling Catholic schools. More importantly, it’s an opportunity to create a tax scholarship program that would extend the opportunity Catholic schools represent to thousands of additional families.

Chris Sinacola, a Massachusetts-based writer, and Cara Stillings Candal, a Senior Fellow at Pioneer Institute, are co-editors of a new book, A Vision of Hope: Catholic Schools in Massachusetts.