Are vouchers for Catholic schools the answer?

Consider the following statistics:

  • Catholic elementary schools in the Archdiocese of Chicago saw enrollment increase 3% in 2012 and 1% in 2011—the first two-year period of growth since 1965.  Archdiocese of Boston elementary schools had a 2% bump—the first in two decades.  The Archdioceses of Los Angeles and Indianapolis and the Diocese of Bridgeport (CN) also increased in student population for the first time in a very long time.
  • Since 2000, U.S. Catholic school enrollment has plummeted by 23% and 1.9k schools have closed.  However, the rate of decline in the number of Catholic schools has slowed.  In 2012, 2M students attended Catholic schools, down 1.7% from 2011, but less than the average yearly decline of 2.5% since 2000.

The Wall Street Journal suggests that much of this growth is due to the increasing availability of vouchers, which ease the financial burden on parents of sending their kids to non-public schools. 

For example:

  • Vouchers are currently available in 10 states and the District of Columbia.
  • Virginia, Florida, and Louisiana each created or expanded voucher or tax credit programs in the last 18 months.
  • Indiana boasts the largest voucher system in the nation.  More than 2.4k students have transferred from public schools to private Catholic schools since the program began last year.

Perhaps this “success” is for entirely the wrong reason.

While voucher programs may have “breathed new life” into Catholic schools while simultaneously offering students the opportunity to receive a superior education, are those schools decidedly Catholic?  And if it is claimed they are, how so?

Let’s try a couple of “not’s”:

  • A good private school that calls itself Catholic isn’t a Catholic school.
  • A good private school that offers a generic or optional Christian religion curriculum isn’t a Catholic school.
  • A good private school that doesn’t immerse students in the faith and its practice isn’t a Catholic school.
  • A good private school whose faculty, administration, and staff don’t believe what the Church teaches isn’t a Catholic school. 

Then, let’s try a couple “what’s”:

  • A Catholic school is one whose faculty, administration, and staff view their work as a vocation and collaborate together in the ministry of providing young people an integral education—mind and soul—as that is informed by Church teaching.
  • A Catholic school is one whose students grow in love of God and neighbor through the practice of the Sacraments and communal prayer.
  • A Catholic school is one where students learn about the Catholic religion and appreciate its role in salvation history.

The Motley Monk would rather there be no “quasi” Catholic schools than an increase in good private schools that masquerade as Catholic, take government money, and in the process, erode the important and distinctive mission of Catholic education.



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The Motley Monk

The Motley Monk is Fr. Richard Jacobs, O.S.A., a Professor of Public Administration at Villanova University. His academic specialities include: organizational theory; leadership ethics; Catholic educational leadership; and, U.S. Catholic educational history. Check out Fr. Jacobs' daily blog at http://www.richard-jacobs-blog.com/omnibus.html.


  1. Much of the religion taught in Catholic schools in Europe is of the kind beautifully satirised by Mgr Ronald Knox as “Public School” (i.e. English boarding school) religion:

    “I think, then, it should be said at the outset that public schools are trying to teach the sons of gentlemen a religion in which their mothers believe, and their fathers would like to: a religion without ” enthusiasm ” in the old sense, reserved in its self-expression, calculated to reinforce morality, chivalry, and the sense of truth, providing comfort in times of distress and a glow of contentment in declining years; supernatural in its nominal doctrines, yet on the whole rationalistic in its mode of approaching God: tolerant of other people’s tenets, yet sincere about its own, regular in church-going, generous to charities, ready to put up with the defects of the local clergyman. This religion the schoolmaster is under contract to teach; it is left to him, if he be a sincere Christian, to attempt the grafting onto this stock of supernatural graces which it does not naturally develop: self-sacrifice, lively devotion, worthy reception of the Communion, and so on . That is the proposition.”

  2. “The Motley Monk would rather there be no “quasi” Catholic schools than an increase in good private schools that masquerade as Catholic”

    Yes, as would most of us. The tougher question is are we better off with some quasi Catholic schools getting students who otherwise would be thrown to the secular, union, wolves at the Government run quasi “schools”.

  3. My children go to a small Catholic school in Indiana. We have gotten some “voucher” kids in the previous year – which simply means they have come for the non-Catholic benefits of our school. I am thrilled about it. Our school is unapologetically Catholic, so bringing children and families into that atmosphere is a tremendous witness to the faith. It is a way to reach souls that may have otherwise been unreachable. True, some may never convert. But I am certain some who will be wandering through adulthood will eventually have fond memories of their Catholic school experience, and that will eventually bring them home to the Catholic faith. Of course, it is only a benefit when the administrators are strong Catholics, and ours seem to be.

  4. During my junior year in college, I volunteered to help teach CCD at a large and
    well-off parish near campus. I was assigned to teach a class of high-school kids,
    most of whom had spent their entire academic careers in Catholic schools. They
    were good kids, and I presume their parents were anxious to see them receive an
    education in the fundamentals of the Faith– hence their continued enrollment in CCD.

    I was amazed by the ignorance these good kids had of even the fundamentals
    of their Catholic patrimony.

    They’d never heard mention of the Real Presence, and were puzzled and amazed that
    it was a part of the Faith. Some were dubious that I wasn’t pulling their legs– after
    all, wouldn’t they have heard of it before? When I asked the class to raise their hand
    if they believed Jesus to be a man but not God, half the hands in the room went up.
    ‘God, but not man’ got most of the other hands. ‘Both God and man’ saw only one
    hand raised.

    The teacher’s manual I’d been given was awful. Meaningful content was nil. Lots of
    instruction to gather in circles and share. Our first day was supposed to be devoted
    to selecting a rock to decorate and gather ’round, as it was to symbolize Christ. The
    lesson plans did not improve from there on…

    I was never asked for a progress report by the DRE. I never had a parent ask me how
    their kid was doing in CCD. I never saw or heard of a priest quizzing kids on material
    that they should have mastered. Not only was the religious education program of this
    large, wealthy parish with its three priests and deacon, liturgist and DRE an abject
    failure, but it also sucked the air out of the room for any nearby school that might
    actually have tried to pass on the Faith.

  5. 1950, more than a half century ago, when I attended a Catholic High School, really Catholic and lovely, there were many Protestants? Who knows, nobody asked, enrolled by their parents who wanted a better education for them. Their parents asked that they not be required to attend religion classes, and they were exempt. They were beautiful individuals, smarter, better looking and probably better than the lot of us. There were countless nuns and four priests from my class alone. The tuition was $60.00 per year. The school closed. The tuition was over $4,000.00 per year, grammar and high, when it closed.
    Next door to me are two brothers, both Methodists, who attended the local Catholic High school for the basketball sports that the public school did not offer. I do not know if they opted out of the religion classes, but they are the most wonderful of neighbors.
    My brother teaches at the high school level with the metal detectors in place which detect two or more guns per week.
    It appears that even the National Education Teachers Unions have lost control over their business, and attending classes in public school is often life-threatening. My own daughter has had Japanese stars thrown at her during recess, razor sharp discs that cut to kill. Hello, school is for learning. If the public schools are for learning and the students are not learning, the word “school” ought to be removed from their title. If vouchers can redeem the tax money earmarked for education, they better do it post haste.
    In addition, the government mandates that children be “educated” until the age of 16 years in most states. Vouchers is the parents’ Right to Choose and accomplishes what the public ones do not. The government mandates EDUCATION, not public school. Nowhere is there a government mandate for public school. Vouchers give the child an EDUCATION, what the government has mandated, FOR OUR TAX DOLLARS.

  6. The problem with vouchers is that they are government/taxpyaer dollars and that (can) mean government control. They won’t call it control but “oversight.” Must make sure the taxpayers dollars are well spent. Many Catholics lament that Catholic Charities/Catholic Family Services have been bullied into helping gays adopt or risk their funding cut. I don’t see much difference here. Yes, the money goes to the parent and the parent chooses a school; but what if the government decides that only “approved” schools (say, ones that follow the State’s mandated comprehensive sex-ed curriculum) can get vouchers?

  7. That’s why the best solution is a tax credit where this business of oversight and spending “government money” goes away.

    Until then however vouchers are a halfway measure to help the least among us while also breaking the unconscionable monopolistic stranglehold that government unions like the NEA have on our society.

  8. I agree with DJ Hesselius. That is my biggest worry about vouchers. The local Catholic school gets used to the easy money from them, then the government passes some requirements that essentially make it impossible for them to remain open and still be Catholic. I believe something similar has happened in England.

    As for the amount of religion in a Catholic school, I think schools should offer the solid fundamentals of the faith. That might be different in an inner city school with few Catholic students. Perhaps that school should model themselves as a mission rather than a usual parish school. I attended a protestant school with mandatory religion classes and daily chapel services. Everyone took had to go, even Jews, Hindus, Catholics, etc. I think we were all better for it.

  9. Paul D: I think the best solution is 1) eliminate compulsory education 2) eliminate tax payer funding of education 3) eliminate any and all attempts at social engineering via the tax code. Let the market sort it out. I am not sure, however, people are really ready for that concept. Vouchers and tax credits might be a temporary solution, but as Mrs. Zummo said, there is the danger the Church schools could get “hooked” on government monies. I am not up on what is going on in England currently, but the Church getting hooked on government monies has happened before, and the results for the Church were not good: http://www.mackinac.org/3461

    Even with tax credits you may potentially have to jumpt hoops: income guidelines, etc. With our children’s Education IRAs, we are allowed to pull some funds for certain education expenses (one son’s laptop–which will be used more for entertainment than education) because he goes to a brick and mortar school, but not for other education expenses (other son’s math book–trust me, his algebra book has no entertainment value!) because he is homeschooled. I see no reason why tax credits couldn’t be treated the same as vouchers–you can only get the tax credit if the school follows XYZ guidelines.

  10. DJ Hesselius
    “Paul D: I think the best solution is 1) eliminate compulsory education 2) eliminate tax payer funding of education 3) eliminate any and all attempts at social engineering via the tax code. Let the market sort it out.”
    4) reduce taxes by the amount necessary to educate ones’ children. Not a tax credit, but an across the board reduction in taxes.
    Also, if the government mandates an education, government gets to fund the mandate.

  11. DJ, those goals sound laudable to me. But you are right that the public is not ready to buy into such reforms. The liberal educational establishment has destroyed multiple generations and it would take a miracle to reverse the trend.

  12. So let’s break this down. The USCCB and certain bishops over the years have advocated the literal tyranny of taxing the so-called rich (which happens to include most of the middle class who struggle to send their kids to Catholic schools and colleges). We tax the “rich”, federal and state, in the 40% range to waste on government handouts to every pitiful lobby group imaginable. We as Catholics then advocate/beg/implore/lobby so that the government gives some of that tax money back to be used for tuition. Stop, think, analyze. Economics is simply the observation and data collection of fundamental behaviors. Taking someone’s money so that the government hopefully gives some back is a perverted view of our freedoms. If we advocate true freedom, and economic behavior is a quantifiable reflection of freedom, then there would be no need for this nonsense. Let people keep their own money and decide. Freedom is uncomfortable to some people….until they truly taste it.

    You want the enrollment in Catholic schools to rise—lower tax rates, let people decide, and let us Catholics have the freedom to use our money for our kids tuition, or heaven forbid, trust us Catholics to give/donate that extra money (that being the money the government doesn’t take) to subsidize our schools. Ask and we give….we are Catholics afterall.

  13. “A good private school whose faculty, administration, and staff don’t believe what the Church teaches isn’t a Catholic school. ”
    Then there are very VERY few Catholic elementary or high schools left in the country.

  14. D J Hesselius

    You do not understand the rationale of Public Education. Jules Ferry, the 19th century architect of public education was simply more honest than most politicians, when he said that its object was to cast the the whole of the country’s youth in the same mold and to stamp it, like the coinage, with the image of the Republic [jeter la jeunesse dans le même moule, la frapper, comme une monnaie, à l’effigie de la République] Universal conscription was seen as furthering the same object.

    Ferry is seen as a sort of secular saint by the Left, which is curious, given that he was the minister of Thiers during the liquidation of the Paris Commune and the theoretician of colonialism in Algeria. He was, however, a ferocious anti-clerical, so all is forgiven.

    The state exercises effective control over the independent sector, by prescribing the syllabus of the public examinations, which operate quite as effectively as the Test Acts to exclude dissenters from government service and the learned professions.

  15. The first thing Uncle Hitler did was remove the Jews from teaching positions. Einstein came to America.

    “Taking someone’s money so that the government hopefully gives some back is a perverted view of our freedoms.”

    “Who will give you what is yours?”
    Sshh. The Catholic teaching nuns are quietly and slowly regrouping. I was taught Thomas Aquinas in the second and third grades by the Felician nuns, and the Baltimore Catechism. The idea that children are too young or uneducable to learn Aquinas, Catholicism and music is subversive and un-American, prohibited in kindergarten, while transgenderism, cantraception and communism are taught is the lie.

  16. The real problem is that the Church bureaucracy has decided to run parochial schools as “private” schools and not as an institution critical for the education of young Catholics. The doctrinal issues are merely a symptom of the real problem.

    What is often overlooked is that so many of these schools are financed through tuition and not directly by the parish and diocese. The “good large Catholic family” who is very open to life may find themselves unable to afford Catholic schools for their Catholic children, while a less devout Catholic (or non-Catholic) would be able to more easily afford them.

    And no, Catholic homeschooling is NOT the answer. Our faith is too universal and community oriented for that to be a long term ideal. (Homeschooling fits far better with evangelical “me ‘n’ Jesus” Protestantism than Catholic beliefs.)

  17. Mary D: Yes, I suppose I should have explicitly mentioned the lowering of the tax rates, and I had that in mind when I said to stop the social engineering stuff via the tax code. But really, it isn’t even just that–its all the other taxes (tax on fuel, medicines, in some places on food, types of property, telecommunications, etc.) And then there is the costs associated with regulations. I live in one of those “minimum portfolio standards” States that says we have to have X% of our energy production come from “renewable energy” sources. Gosh darn, our electrical and heating bills went up, not down, like they said they would. They are somewhat higher than in neighbor states without the standards. All these things eat away at the family budget.

    Michael P: Yes, I am aware of what you mention. Not all the details though–I’ve heard of Dewey of course, but not Jules Ferry.

  18. Jim: homeschooling works just fine even for Catholics. I confess I’m not that “community oriented” but there is a local Catholic group that gets together for all sorts of things–field trips, Mass, St. Nicholas parties, co-op classes, etc. I do not understand the mentality that insists that Catholic parents must send their children to “other education” as I call it–be it Parochial, public, charter, private, etc. I have a child who attends a private Christian (Protestant) school part time. (A large Baptist church school also offers part time enrollment.) Ideally, my child could go part time to one of the local Parochial schools, but that is not an option. Full time or not at all seems to be the rule.

  19. DJ Hesselius: I know, I just needed to spell it out. What are the chances of sending the tuition bill to the Superintendant of Schools and the local school board? It is the local school board that saves money when a child is home schooled or enters a Catholic or private school? The local school board knows how much it costs to educate a child and they know how much they save when they do not have to edcate a child.

  20. Mary: I am not entirely sure I understand your last post.

    In our State, it is the State that pays the local district to educate the children. Back in ’93, the State Leg passed a bill to eliminate property taxes as the source of funding for the schools. Now it is State sales tax and Lotto that pay for the majority of it, with a very small amount amount coming from property taxes. There has been much, much lamenting over enrollment declines in some areas–school counts make the paper every year. The State saves money the fewer children that are enrolled in the public system, but the local school boards consider any child that leaves their district–be it for homeschooling, another public school district (very common in my area), charter, parochial, etc.–a loss of income. The a couple of the local districts actually advertise in the paper for parents to enroll children in their district.

  21. And no, Catholic homeschooling is NOT the answer. Our faith is too universal and community oriented for that to be a long term ideal. (Homeschooling fits far better with evangelical “me ‘n’ Jesus” Protestantism than Catholic beliefs.)


    Well, unless our parish school’s tuition comes down substantially OR the state decides to give me my property tax money back Catholic homeschooling is the only answer for my family. I only have two children and simply cannot afford to send them to the parish school. My husband makes too much money for us to qualify for financial assistance but we don’t make enough to cover over $5K per student per year (and no there’s no discount for additional kids, so with my two we’d be paying over $11k per year) in tuition to the local Catholic elementary/middle school. The closest Catholic high school is $10K per student per year and, again, no multiple child discount PLUS $150 a month per child to ride the school bus (because the school is 30 miles away) so we’d be out over $20K a year when my kids, who are three years apart, reach that level. On the other hand, I can keep my kids out of the local public school (that just had several aids and administrators arrested for perpetrating and covering up child molestation and a child pornography operation with 9-year-old girls at the school) and teach them myself with the Seton home study curriculum for less than $1k a year for both kids together. That’s a HUGE difference.

    As far as vouchers go, the comment earlier about the state interfering in the curriculum is a valid concern, in my experience. This past year we had our oldest in the VPK program where the state (Florida, where they approved vouchers but only for the VPK program, not K-12) gives a voucher to the school of choice (so long as its approved by the state) and your child goes for a half day of PreK. We used the voucher to send our son to the parish school for PreK and promptly found out that his class wasn’t allowed to pray, have religion lessons, or attend mass or other religious oriented activities because the state would pull the voucher funding. They were also subject to all sorts of random inspections, were required to completely change their early childhood curriculum to match the program the public schools use, and we’re overall subjected to much harsher standards than the public schools. Ironically enough, the inspector commented about halfway through the year to our PreK teacher that this class was leaps and bounds ahead of where the public preschool classes were. Yet we got all that extra scrutiny because they have to be absolutely positive that public funds weren’t going to unapproved lessons or activities.

    In short, it was a nightmare and even if they approved vouchers for K-12 tomorrow we would not use them because I want my child to get a *Catholic* education and the Catholic part was eliminated entirely once the state monies were involved.

  22. DJ Hesselius: Let the school board submit the tuition bill to the state for reimbursment.
    Mandy P. I know of a case where the teacher slapped a student in the face, the parents sued and the student was enrolled in a Muslim Academy in another state at the school board’s expense.
    If parents sued the school board for having removed God from the public schools, from the students’ right to know “their Creator”, the school board will be forced to pay tuition to Catholic schools. Vouchers is what this is really all about. Giving students and parents the freedom to acknowledge “their constitutional Creator” in private school but refusing to allow the students and parents their freedom of religion and conscience. Let us hope this structure of evil domination is deconstructed at least as surely as our freedom of religon has been deconstructed by the atheist. Columbia, whose statue rides atop the capitol building in Washington, D.C. has become an evil dominatrix.

  23. The law dictates an education for children up to the age of sixteen. The law does not dictate a “public school” education. If a school is accedited and I am sure they all are, some are even given awards for being above the best, there need be no state inspectors dictating or denying the execise of our religious freedom. If your child has NOT been educated up to par with Catholic schools, time to sue for civil rights. I know one case where the teacher refused to let the students go to the bathroom and students were getting sick. The parents formed a class action lawsuit. Promises, promises. Let the school board provide tuition to Catholic school. They ordered it, they want it their way, let them pay for it. The state ought to fund education to every student, but if they must be forced, force them.

  24. The Ninth Circut court in California told parents who objected to the curriculum, that “once your child crosses the threshhold of the school, you no longer have anything to say. They belong to us”. Legal kidnapping of minor children.
    Every atheist, abortionist, pornographer has got his way by lawsuit in the courts. It is time to take our courts back. It is time to take our children back. It is time to take our constitutional posterity and their inheritance of unalienable rights back, legally, through the courts.
    If the state has accredited your school, that is all the reason they need to approve vouchers. Public money like the public square is for “WE, the people”

  25. Mary D: So, you are serious that I submit my children’s private school bill (the youngest goes to a reading tutor) to the local school board (or, in our case, the State Board of Ed)?

    I think I prefer my plan: stop government mandates, stop compulsory ed, stop the public funding of education, etc, etc.

    Considering the mountains of debt we have piled on us, this may in fact become a reality, even if the laws on the books dictate otherwise. I’ve already had one dedicated public school mom ask for for curriculum advice in case AN EMERGENCY should happen, and she has to take over the education of her children.

  26. DJ Hesselius: Public school has become indoctrination. If our chidren have not been educated to their grade level, this is grounds for lawsuit. Those in power will blame the child and then the parents for sending their child to school to be educated. Currently, public school does not want children who need to be taught, but demand from the students’ parents children who already know everything. Your plan: “I think I prefer my plan: stop government mandates, stop compulsory ed, stop the public funding of education, etc, etc.” needs to have a curriculum for educating students. To bring back the nuns would be wonderful. Your plan is workable as long as our children are rightfully educated.

  27. And…who is to decide the correct or rightful education for our children? That’s the issue. Not everyone agrees on what is “correct” or “right.”

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