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?