“But now that we’re a year or so into it, they’re looking at the long-term value of a quality Catholic education. Once they’re here within this school, the retention rates are very high for families.”
School choice supported
EWTN’s poll found that Catholic parents largely back initiatives to support school choice, with two-thirds saying they support a policy that allows students to make use of public education funds for the schools or services that best fit their needs.
In some states, school choice is helping increase enrollment at Catholic schools.
Arizona and Florida are national leaders on the school choice front, with 92% and 75% of Catholic schools respectively participating in voucher, tax credit, and education savings account programs, according to the NCEA.
Arizona’s steady expansion of these benefits culminated in a universal K–12 school voucher program that took effect last week. Under the program, all of the state’s 1.1 million schoolchildren will have access to an Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) that provides approximately $7,000 per child that families can use for tutoring, private school tuition, at-home curricula, special needs therapies, and other education expenses.
“As Catholics, we believe parents are the primary educators of their children, and they need to have meaningful options,” said Ronald M. Johnson Jr., executive director of the Arizona Catholic Conference, which has lobbied for years to expand the state’s tuition tax credits and ESA program.
Even the more restricted ESA program that existed previously has given the state’s Catholic schools a major boost, he said.
“When other Catholic schools across the country have been closing, we’ve been growing,” he told CNA.
Without the tuition tax credits and the ESAs, “many of our schools wouldn’t be open now, especially those in inner cities or on reservations,” Johnson said. “In some of those places, 100% of the kids wouldn’t be there except for that assistance.”
Jim Rigg, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Miami, told CNA that the archdiocese’s schools have seen two consecutive years of overall enrollment growth. For 2021-22, they had a net growth of 767 students, or 3%. While official counts for this school year will not be in until October, they are anticipating growth of at least 4.5%, or approximately 1,100 new students, Rigg said.
While he believes an expansion of school choice in Florida contributed to the increase in enrollment, he believes that other factors may have been at play.
“I believe the reasons for the enrollment growth are various. I like to think the reputation of our Catholic schools for providing a strong, faith-based education partly explains the growth,” Rigg told CNA by email.
“I do think the pandemic partly explains the growth. We have had many families join us who cite dysfunction and drama in the public schools as a significant factor in their choice,” he said.
Feldhaus, of Infant of Prague Catholic School in North Carolina, says her school has benefited greatly from the North Carolina Opportunity Scholarship Program, a state initiative that provides funding of up to $5,928 per year for eligible children who choose to attend a participating nonpublic school. Feldhaus estimated that approximately 42% of the school’s students are making use of the scholarship.
“It’s been a tremendous program for Catholic schools because what was considered before unreachable, whether on income or location, is now an option for families,” she said.
According to the Raleigh Diocese, in 2021-22 more than 900 students enrolled in diocesan schools received Opportunity Scholarships. For 2022-23, that number is expected to be more than 1,100.
At the same time, the Diocese of Raleigh saw its total current enrollment increase 8.4% in 2021-2022 and another 2.2% this year, for a two-year increase of 10.6% and record enrollment.
Critical Race Theory and parent protests
The EWTN poll also showed that Catholic voters are concerned about what children are learning in school. Sixty-four percent of those surveyed said that they support parents being involved in determining what is being taught in schools.
In response to a separate question, 59% said they oppose Critical Race Theory (CRT) being introduced into schools. CRT, which was not defined in the question, refers to an academic concept based on the idea that U.S. institutions and society are rooted in racism and primarily benefit white men, to the detriment of minorities.
The introduction into classrooms of certain tenets of CRT has become a hot-button political issue. At least seven states have banned the teaching of CRT in schools, and more than a dozen others are considering legislation to restrict it.
In his successful bid for the Virginia governor’s seat in 2021, Republican Glenn Youngkin made CRT in schools a top issue after highlighting teacher training materials that he said were steeped in “inherently divisive concepts.” Other political candidates have made CRT an issue in several midterm election races.