Church, state and education

Catholic schools are in steep decline, their enrollment having “steadily dropped by more than half from its peak of five million 40 years ago”, according to a New York Times account. Among the better-known reasons: 1) nuns and priests who once staffed teaching positions have retired and their ranks have not been renewed in the near-total absence of new American “vocations”; 2) as urban Catholics suburbanized over the past two generations, Church officials for various reasons did not choose to follow them out by establishing suburban schools in large numbers; 3) having fully entered the mainstream of American life, Catholics are less drawn than previously to separate institutions. The Times article adds another, perhaps less familiar reason: while 15 percent of children from Catholic families currently attend parochial school — down from roughly 50 percent in 1965 — only 3 percent of Hispanics choose parochial schools, especially significant since that group will soon comprise a majority of American Catholics.

The policy angle on all this, of course, is the perennial agitation for “school choice” in the form of vouchers or tax credits for parents who pursue private or religious education. My impression — it may be wrong — is that the school-choice issue cuts across both believer-unbeliever and libertarian-traditionalist lines on the Right. Scratch a policy activist in the school choice movement, in my experience, and you will very often find the sort of Milton Friedman conservative who is libertarian-tinged, secular, or both. On the other hand many other conservatives are deeply skeptical of the voucher idea, above all because of the fear that it will extend state control over religious and private schools and thus make them more like the public. And this second group definitely cuts across both religious and lib-trad lines: it includes many libertarians of a sort more “hard-core” than Friedman, some Old Right types, and many of the more strongly orthodox or otherwise religious traditionalists.

Another way of looking at it is that the cause of school vouchers got left behind in the culture wars: the Colsons and Neuhauses, Dobsons and Bauers either never supported it as a cause at all, or chose not to put it on their list of prime demands. What do the rest of you think?

About Walter Olson

Fellow at a think tank in the Northeast specializing in law. Websites include Former columnist for Reason and Times Online (U.K.), contributor to National Review, etc.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Church, state and education

  1. Donna B. says:

    I think that “school choice” never got much traction because every political faction was/is essentially split on the idea for too many different reasons.

    I’m sad that Catholic school enrollment is declining because they did do well for my children through 8th grade. There were religion classes, but they tended to be more history than theology. Plus, you didn’t have to worry about them teaching ID.

  2. Paul says:

    I’m a secular libertarian-ish voter who is opposed to vouchers because it would expand government control over what is now, for the most part, a private sphere. (My kids go to Catholic elementary school because of my wife. It seems like a fairly good school.)

    My hunch is that most support from vouchers comes from self-interested people paying the bill for parochial school who would not mind government intervention. That’s a pretty small contingent of the whole population. There might also be some support for vouchers from people with kids “stuck” in bad public schools, but I suspect that’s a pretty small group. For the most part, if you are truly motivated, you can get your kids out of a bad public school without vouchers.

    So I suspect it’s a dead issue because the votes aren’t there.

  3. Northerner says:

    If you search for “vouchers” on, Google says that there are 103 results. So vouchers were discussed by Neuhaus (or his magazine) quite a bit.

  4. Walter Olson says:

    That Neuhaus article tends to confirm my impression, though. It is, for him, notably moderate in tone, respectful of those who differ and devoid of Culture War rhetoric. All quite consistent with a policy of not driving away potential friends by making it a do-or-die issue.

  5. Lorenzo says:

    Catholic schools (like private schools generally) are growing in enrollments in Australia. But we have government support for private schools, partly on the grounds that it is cheaper than taxpayers playing for a full school place.

    Vouchers scare people in all sorts of ways. Middle class folk worried that inner city children will invade their local school, for example.

    They also framed the education debate badly. The real issue in schooling is the conflict of interest in having the regulator being also the major provider.

  6. 49erDweet says:

    I’m sorry to hear that Catholic schools are on the decline. I spent 9 years in a non-catholic parochial school in SoCal during my formative years and my education thrived under that tutelage. Lately many of my grand kids benefited from a catholic version, but I fear for future generations.

    I can not support a call for “vouchers”, but a “tax credit” might be appropriate. Or it might just be me.

  7. Susan says:

    A side issue, but more and more American Hispanics (as well as Mexicans and South and Central Americans) are converting from Roman Catholicism to evangelical Protestantism. That may be why they have relatively little interest in vouchers to send their kids to Catholic schools. Politically, evangelical Hispanics tend to be socially conservative and fiscally liberal.

  8. ◄Dave► says:

    Politically, evangelical Hispanics tend to be socially conservative and fiscally liberal.

    Yikes! There is an imperative to close our southern border right there! ◄Dave►

  9. Susan says:

    Well, it explains why so many Hispanics could vote against gay marriage, but vote for Obama.

  10. Clark says:

    Is there a rise in Evangelical schools offsetting the decline in Catholic schools? Or is the Evangelical movement more a move towards small home schooled groups?

    That said there do seem to be more and more “secular” private schools rising.

Comments are closed.