Culture Institutions

Fallout in the neighborhood when a Catholic school closes

An empty Catholic school classroom.
Law School Professor Nicole Stelle Garnett near downtown South Bend, Ind. Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame

Law school Professor Nicole Stelle Garnett near downtown South Bend, Ind. Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame

(RNS) What happens to a community when a Roman Catholic school closes its doors?

That’s the question Nicole Stelle Garnett and Margaret F. Brinig, two Notre Dame law professors, pondered as they studied closures in Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles.

There were 7,000 Catholic schools in the U.S. in 2010, down from 13,000 in 1960, according to the National Catholic Education Association. The decline, rooted in the migration of parishioners to the suburbs and the secularization of Catholic culture, has been dubbed the “closure crisis” within the church.

Religion News Service asked Garnett about what she and Brinig found in their investigation, which resulted in their new book: “Lost Classroom, Lost Community: Catholic Schools’ Importance in Urban America.”

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Why did you write this book?

A: I was at a conference several years ago on the inner-city kids and faith-based schools and how these great educational institutions are closing and how we can keep them open. But during the break, a lot of the community organizers were saying something a little different: when the school closes, the neighborhood really suffers.

My parents lived through different kind of school closings — of rural public schools in Kansas. They would say the same thing — that when the school closes, it was the end of the community. I was curious. I teach property law and I’ve written a lot about what makes urban neighborhoods work. This question about schools as community institutions is really interesting to me.

Law School Professor Margaret F. Brinig outside Saint Joseph School in South Bend, Ind. Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame

Law school Professor Margaret F. Brinig outside St. Joseph School in South Bend, Ind. Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame

Q: But how do you know that your results apply uniquely to Catholic schools, rather than schools in general?

A: We don’t. Schools are good community institutions. They bring people together to make children into productive, happy, healthy adults. We didn’t try to compare the effect of public school closures — we just didn’t have the data.

What we did do was test the effects of an open charter school versus an open Catholic school, and we found they didn’t work quite the same way. An open Catholic school was strongly correlated — controlling for demographics — with much lower crime. An open charter school wasn’t.

Q: Why might this be?

A: One of our thoughts on why Catholic schools are really great community institutions ties into the literature on why they’re great educational institutions: There’s a lot of trust and high expectations among the principals, teachers, kids and parents. There’s a spillover into the community.

And sometimes these schools are the last functioning institutions left in poor neighborhoods. The Catholic Church, by investing in a poor South Side African-American neighborhood in Chicago, is making the statement that we believe in you, and we know success is possible here. Maybe when they leave, it sends the opposite message.

"Lost Classroom, Lost Community," book cover courtesy of Notre Dame

Garnett and Brinig’s book, “Lost Classroom, Lost Community: Catholic Schools’ Importance in Urban America,” studied closures in Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of University of Notre Dame

Q: The last chapter of your book is called “Imagining Cities without Catholic Schools.” What do you imagine?

A: We imagine families who might leave cities in order to seek out a better education for their kids. And cities need families. Cities need families for stability, for health, for social capital. Our urban leaders don’t want to imagine their cities without Catholic schools.

Q: You make the point that inner-city Catholic schools are educating many students who are not Catholic. What does that say about Catholic education in the U.S. today?

A: Former Washington, D.C., Cardinal James Hickey used to say, “We’re not educating them because they’re Catholic; we’re educating them because we’re Catholic.” It says a very good thing about the Catholic Church that it is willing to invest in the education of these kids.

Q: Is this book an argument for public vouchers for private schools?

A: We didn’t set out to write a book that’s an argument for vouchers. This is an empirical social science study. It is another piece of data which certainly would seem to support public funding mechanisms that would help these schools attract poor kids who would like to go there.

Q: Why does the book spend little time on the church’s sex abuse crisis?

A: We didn’t set out to provide a universal explanation for the decline in Catholic schools. The abuse crisis I’m sure has decreased a lot of faith in Catholic institutions and that’s a very sad thing for me as a Catholic. It turns out that if a priest in the parish is accused of abuse, the Catholic school is 10 times more likely to close. But if the priest leaves for other reasons — he gets sick, dies, marries — the school is also more likely to close.

Q: Are you a Catholic school graduate?

A: I went to public school in Kansas. Three of my four children are in Catholic schools, and one is not in school yet.


About the author

Lauren Markoe

Lauren Markoe has been a national reporter for RNS since 2011. Previously she covered government and politics as a daily reporter at the Charlotte Observer and The State (Columbia, S.C.)


Click here to post a comment

  • I am not at all surprised by this situation since they are not teaching the good news of God’s kingdom or heavenly government as the ONLY hope for mankind. Jesus instructed his disciples to do this work (Matthew 4:17; Matthew 24:14).

    Instead, they are promoting war and politics, with even the Pope recently suggesting military intervention in the Middle East.

    Jesus instructed us to love our fellowman as ourselves (Matthew 22:39) and even to love our enemies and pray for those persecuting us (Matthew 5:43-45).

    Jesus also said at John 13:35 that: “By this, all will know that you are my disciples, IF you have LOVE among yourselves.”

    God’s kingdom will soon put an end to all corrupt governments of man (Daniel 2:44) as well as all the wicked ones on earth (Psalm 37:10,11), as well as all sickness, disease, old age and death (Revelation 21:1-4).

    That kingdom will rule with righteousness, love and justice, and even the animals will be at peace with one another (Isaiah 11:1-9).

    Are all of these upcoming marvelous blessings by God and his kingdom for mankind being promoted, preached and taught by Catholics worldwide before the end of this era comes???

  • Fran you should go back to reading your Watchtower rather than comment about anything Catholic.
    Catholic schools have become what Vatican II warned about, they have become a haven for the wealthy, as tuition has become prohibitive for the middle class (if there is one anymore}, families are smaller thanks to contraception and women’s lib, nuns who formally staffed our schools have disappeared from the classroom and the convents, and the parish priest is expected to be an executive rather than a spiritual leader.
    I guess after graduating from Catholic schools in the 50’s and 60’s, sending my children to both Catholic and public schools, and seeing the changes in our society over my past 65 years I should write my own book!

  • In exactly what VII document does the warning about Catholic schools becoming a “haven for the wealthy” appear?

    The fact of the matter is the reason for the decline is VII itself, which the author of the book obliquely references as “the secularization of Catholic culture.”

    My 12 years of Catholic education occurred after the council. I was an honor student and received a fine education regarding the three r’s. Do you know what I learned about the faith in 12 years? Nothing.

    And, as you state, it is not easy keeping tuition down when you no longer have sisters in the classroom and the pews are no longer full of contributing parishioners helping to defray costs.

    Tell me what event precipitated the emptying of seminaries, convents, and churches? Answer? Vatican II.

  • There were 7,000 Catholic schools in the U.S. in 2010, down from 13,000 in 1960

    1. The economy of Catholic schooling was destroyed by the implosion of the religious orders, most especially orders of women religious. Teaching sisters live communally, can get by on small stipends, and do not have families to support. When you have to hire lay teachers, you have to pay salaries. The religious orders began to implode (and have imploded far more severely than have ordinations to the secular clergy) co-incident with the end of the Council.

    2. The inclination of nominally Catholic parents to seek out education of a distinct character has also declined as Catholic practice has grown hollow and drowned in kitch.

    3. There is no closure “crisis”. It a chronic condition, and one the onset of which antedated the first wave of pederasty scandals by nearly a decade and antedated the 2d wave by nearly a generation.

    4. I’ll wager you charter plants are pitched to neighborhoods which are already in troubled condition, whereas foundationally Catholic schools you’d find in any neighborhood constructed prior to 1965. I tend to doubt the aura of residually Catholic schools on the neighborhood is all that potent.

    5. The argument for vouchers is that public agency is a suboptimal and problematic way to deliver educational services, as it is re just about any service that is purchasable on an open market. Vouchers cannot induce a recommittment on the part of Catholic schools to their authentic educational mission. Only their faculty and clientele under the leadership of the local ordinary can do that; and they won’t.

  • And sometimes these schools are the last functioning institutions left in poor neighborhoods.

    If you wan’t functioning institutions in neighborhood x, you need to address the forces which induce the people who make those institutions to leave the neighborhood. You need policeman’s boots on the ground, you need judges and prosecutors who are interested in punishing criminals rather than having them as captive subjects of a social work enterprise, you need to suspend the collection of property taxes in the most impecunious neighborhoods, you need to hoover up the most troublesome youth and put them in day detention (with fitful attempts at special education) and leave regular schools to the young who adhere to a certain behavioral minimum, you need to adapt your building codes to allow a greater variety of housing-type options, and you need to send in extra street sweeping details to clean off the graffiti, spot derelict buildings for demolition, &c. Restructuring the welfare system would help as well.

  • Frank, the Watchtower regularly exposes false religion, just as the Bible does, which I shared in my post. My parents were born and raised Catholics in France.

    Besides that fact, however, the good news of God’s kingdom as the only hope for mankind still needs to shared with our fellowman before the end comes (Matthew 24:14). So I just had to put in a plug for it!! 😀

  • JT you may find the context of what I was referring to in the “General Catechetical Directory” Ad norman decreti Apr 11, 1971 Sec. 6 #’s 57-59 but please take the time to read the entire document on education.
    In my opinion it wasn’t Vatican II in and of itself that precipitated the emptying of our convents and seminaries it was the lack of understanding and leadership of the Bishops of that era.

  • I am a proud product of twelve years of Catholic education. I truly appreciate the commitment my family made to send me to the schools. I received both a quality education and a sound basis for my faith.

    Sadly, my grade school, St. Dominic Elementary School, has closed as had many of the Catholic elementary schools in my native Northeast Baltimore. It is now a housing complex for senior citizens. My high school, Archbishop Curley, is still going strong but the tuition is so high that I fear it is now out of reach of most families. That is a pity because I always believed Curley to be the most working class of the Catholic high schools in Baltimore.

    I am grateful I had the opportunity to benefit from the system, but, with the decline of the teaching orders, I doubt the remaining schools will have the influence they once enjoyed.

    Sean Paul Murphy
    Author, The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God