Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Catholic schools give America more than chump change

            I’ve bought pizza, chaperoned dances, donated to appeals – all fundraisers for Catholic schools – and paid tuition. Which is why I am bent out of shape by an article on church finances in Aug. 18 issue of The Economist. The article in the magazine that defines itself as “authoritative” makes all kinds of claims without data to back them up. Most annoying is its blithe statement that local and federal government “bankroll” Catholic schools.

            The article is filled with errors, such as its guess that church giving dropped by 20 percent because of the sex abuse scandal heralded in the media in 2002 and henceforth.  Real data from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) indicate, however, that church giving increased significantly in recent years. CARA researcher Mark Gray noted August 21 that "on average, Catholic households gave about $8 in weekly collections in 2000 and today they give about $10. Even after adjusting for the effects of inflation, annual offertory in parishes in the U.S. grew from $361,000 in 2000 to 478,000 in 2010."  Adds Gray, who spends his life crunching numbers, “there is no evidence I know of that Catholic parish weekly collections have declined.”

As another school year starts, it is time to highlight the church’s contribution to American education.

            The government has a mandate to educate youth, and some public schools in well-off suburbs perform spectacularly; in other areas, not so well. However, in meeting its obligation, the government gets huge help from the Catholic Church, to the tune of about $23 billion dollars a year. That is what the government does not have to pay because Catholic schools educate about two million U.S. students annually. Catholic schools provide a realistic choice in education. Given this $23 billion, you could argue it’s the church subsidizing the government (or “bankrolling” it, if you wish to use The Economist’s hyperbole), not vice versa.

            In many nations, the government subsidizes Catholic schools, but in the U.S., government aid to non-public schools is minimal. In fact, other than the DC Opportunity Scholarship program, which helps fewer than 2,000 students, no U.S. government programs fund non-public schools. In some school districts, government pays for textbooks and transportation, but even that aid is for students, not schools. It does not pay for heat, light, building repair or the principal’s salary, for example. In some impoverished areas, students receive remedial help, whether they go to a public school or parochial school. Again, such aid is for students, not schools. In fact, the money does not go directly to the Catholic school, but to a public school central office, earning interest for the public schools until the district meets its obligation to provide resources for needy students.

            Who benefits from the Catholic schools? The nation.

The National Catholic Education Association provides informative data, here from the 2010-2011 school year:

·       Catholic schools help more than Catholics. Non-Catholic enrollment is 15.4 percent. In the urban/inner-city, the percentage of non-Catholic students soars to 42 percent.

·       Minority enrollment is 30.2 percent.

·       The average per pupil tuition in parish elementary schools is $3,673. That is approximately 62.4 percent of actual costs per pupil of $5,367. About 93.9 percent of elementary schools provide some form of tuition assistance.

·       The mean freshman tuition in a Catholic secondary school is $8,182. That is approximately 80 percent of actual costs per pupil of $10,228. About 97 percent of secondary schools provide some form of tuition assistance.

·       An estimated 99 percent of Catholic secondary school students graduate, and 84 percent go on to college, compared to 44.1 percent of public school students.         

How do Catholic schools meet the shortfall between actual cost and what families pay? Primarily through direct subsidy from parishes, dioceses, religious orders, development programs and fund-raising activities.

            The Economist ought to be embarrassed. A little fact-checking would have gone a long way. When it comes to who is helping whom, the church’s contribution to America is worth $23 billion annually. Not exactly chump change.


Brian H said...

Thank you for writing this, and stating credible information on the lack-thereof information found in the Economist article.

Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz said...

The biggest error in The Economist report was assuming that the Catholic Church is administratively centrally organized. It's like they think there's this huge pot of billions of dollars sitting around that every diocese, parish, school, hospital, nursing home, orphanage, soup kitchen, homeless shelter, counseling center, religious community, retreat center, youth program in the country can go running to, open the spigot and let out the cash. The author should have gotten a tutorial on the structure, something along this line: