I respect Mary Z Connaughton and even voted for her when she ran for Auditor. But her recent blogpost at the Pioneer Institute is downright bizarre and highlights many of the contradictions in conservative approaches to education reform.
She begins by discussing the closure of St. Clements school in Medford, part of a long term trend across the diocese:
Saint Clement’s closing does not represent an isolated example. Enrollment in Boston Archdiocese schools has dropped 21 percent in a decade, from 51,046 in 2004 to 40151 in 2014. During the same period, the diocese closed 58 schools. By 2016, enrollment was down to about 38,000.
Hmm wonder what issue around the middle of the last decade caused this steep decline? The author doesn’t even mention it. This is a sin of omission that entirely undercuts her case. Even if we leave aside the massive toll the abuse scandal took on Church finances and it’s credibility with families, it’s still a pretty weak case.
First, cherry pick data out of context to argue that Catholic schools are intrinsically better than public ones:
The Saint Clement School’s website boasts that 99 percent of its graduates go on to college – 90 percent to four-year schools. Saint Clement School primarily serves students from Somerville and Medford, where 71 and 75 percent of graduates, respectively, go on to higher education, according to recent Department of Elementary and Secondary Education department data.
The fact that Catholic schools are not required by law to serve everyone, selectively enroll based on test scores, have substantially lower IEP populations, and charge tuition goes entirely unmentioned in this analysis. When tuition does come up, it’s apparently caused by greedy teachers, a familiar Pioneer scapegoat.
Saint Clement’s is closing despite a population explosion in the area. Somerville was among the top five communities with the highest population gains in the state from 2015 to 2016, according to a report by the State House News Service on US census statistics. Yet demographic shifts and economic hurdles outweigh the population growth when it comes to driving school enrollment.
The primary cause in the decline are the tuition hikes impossible to avoid because of the changing status of teachers in Catholic schools.
As more and more lay people took on teaching roles in Catholic schools, the tuitions in the hundreds of dollars rather than in the thousands of dollars began to evaporate. Even with partial financial aid from the school, tuition became out of reach for many families. Additionally, many urban families moved to suburbs with higher-performing public schools with no tuition at all.
Ah! If only those pesky lay teachers didn’t have families to feed and insure like those priests and nuns, then tuition would still be cheap! But what about those urban families choosing to move to suburbs with higher performing public schools? That seems to contradict her earlier point about Catholic education being intrinsically superior. And that demographic change in Somerville? It’s largely the growth of young urban professionals moving in while traditionally Catholic groups that used to be the student pool move or age out. Those professionals have much smaller families than those old groups (if they have children at all), and they are far less religious. It’s not surprising they are choosing public and independent schools that aren’t sectarian over private ones that are
Isn’t that just the free market at work? People moving with their feet to better districts or opting to other private alternatives? Maybe ones with a better track record of screening out child molesters? The market for Catholic education is declining, perhaps irrevocably. The fact that this is due to institutional mismanagement never crosses her mind-even though it’s the primary cause.
Punitive financial settlements from the scandals have led to millions of dollars in losses for the archdiocese. Even profitable schools have had to close or go independent of the diocese. Another option for some schools she carefully avoids mentioning. The only lifeboat this free market conservative can think of is a big government bailout. Wall Street and Cardinal Law are too big to jail and too big to fail.
It is now or never for Massachusetts policymakers to take action if the state’s Catholic schools are to survive and serve as robust options for urban youth. Why not provide educational tax credits to low-income families who pay tuition for private schools?
Like Sears, parochial schools may be another 19th century institution that cannot survive the 21st. As a free market institute, the Pioneer Institute should welcome their demise if consumers choose more innovative alternatives. As a taxpayer guardian, the Pioneer Institute should oppose needlessly diverting tax dollars from public schools local property are supporting to sectarian schools there is clearly a declining market for. It would also exacerbate a trend where public tax dollars are diverted to subsidizing private institutions like GE and Holly. Now we can add the Catholic Church to the list. And about that, why just fund the Catholic church? Shouldn’t all religious schools have access to this subsidy gravy train?
What about the evangelical Protestant South Shore Christian Academy (which won’t hire a Catholic-let alone an LGBT teacher)? Or the Islamic Academy of New England? Or Jewish Maimonides Day School? Or the Episcopalian Epiphany School (which already serves inner city students without tax dollars)? Or secular private schools? She never says. One thing this article does prove is that big government subsidy for religion is a reliable way for conservatives to win votes at the expense of their supposed principles. And with Education Secretary Betsy DeVoss in charge, this is an idea about to go national.