Study: As Catholic Options Dwindle, Middle Class Retreats From Private Schools

U.S. Census and the Current Population Survey

This is the latest article in The 74’s ongoing ‘Big Picture’ series, bringing American education into sharper focus through new research and data. Go Deeper: See our full series.

The complexion of America’s private school sector has undergone massive changes over the past half-century, driven mostly by a decline in Catholic school enrollment, according to a major new report published in the journal Education Next. The authors find that middle-class families in particular have been leaning away from private schools for several decades.

Written by renowned researchers Sean Reardon of Stanford and Richard Murnane of Harvard, the report uses census data, longitudinal studies conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, and family surveys to create a picture of trends in private elementary school enrollment since the 1960s.

Overall, attendance in both religious and nonreligious private elementary schools has fallen from a peak of 15 percent of the total K-8 population in 1958 to just under 9 percent in 2015.

That shrinkage has occurred at different rates among different student populations and regions of the country, but one phenomenon has stood out: A form of income segregation is influencing the demographics of the private sector. More affluent families, especially in the South, are increasingly sending their children to non-religious private schools, while their low- and middle-income peers are more likely to choose some form of parochial education.

“The big decline is in the Catholic schools — and that’s a huge decline,” Murnane told The 74 in an interview. “In 1960, 9 out of 10 kids who were in a private elementary school were in a Catholic school. That’s now 4 in 10.”

At the same time, he noted, the percentage of all private school elementary students enrolled in religious non-Catholic schools — whether an evangelical Protestant academy in Kansas or a Jewish day school in New York City — has skyrocketed from just 8 percent in 1965 to 45 percent in 2013. The proportion of kids attending non-religious private schools increased from 4 percent to 18 percent over the same period.

What explains the decline in market share commanded by Catholic elementary schools? The departure of white families from urban centers, sometimes called “white flight,” is one factor. The traditional constituency for Catholic education was urban, middle- or working-class whites, often the children of Irish, Polish, Italian, and Lithuanian immigrants. As they decamped to the suburbs in huge numbers beginning in the 1960s, the number of parents willing to pay Catholic school tuition plummeted.

That aggravated what Murnane deemed the biggest problem faced by Catholic schools and their supporters: vanishing funds for scholarships and operations. At the same time the schools were losing a large group of potential customers, they were also deprived of cheap labor by the sharp decrease in the number of priests, nuns, and religious orders.

“It used to be that dioceses contributed significant amounts of money to support private schools in low-income parishes,” he said. “They don’t have that money anymore, in part because attendance is down and in part because settling these sexual abuse cases cost tens of millions of dollars in dioceses like Boston, Philadelphia, and New York. That money used to be available to support low-income parishes. Now it’s not.”

“Basically, what the dioceses have had to say to local parishes is, ‘You’re on your own.’ ”

That explains why the number of Catholic schools dropped by 37 percent between 1970 and 2010 — a loss felt predominantly in the areas of the country where Catholics have historically been most plentiful, the Northeast and Midwest. In those that remained open, the financial calculation has changed. Once a popular choice among the working class, Catholic schools have raised their inflation-adjusted annual tuition nearly 600 percent in those four decades, from $873 to $5,858.

During a long period of stagnation for middle- and working-class wages, that was a recipe for polarization by income. The authors make frequent reference to the “90-50 gap” — the disparity in private school attendance between families at the 90th percentile of income and those at the 50th percentile.

In terms of overall private school attendance, that gap stood at 5.5 percentage points in 1968, when roughly 12 percent of middle-income children and 18 percent of high-income children attended private schools. It grew to 9.3 percentage points by 2013; while both groups were less likely to send their children to private schools, the decline among middle-income children (to 7 percent) was much larger than that among high-income children (to 16 percent).

Perhaps nowhere is the 90-50 gap more prevalent than in the small but growing sector of private non-religious schools, which have become an attractive option for upper-class families. The enrollment rate of affluent students at such schools tripled between 1969 and 2011, from 2 percent to 6 percent, and the 90-50 gap grew from just 1 percentage point to nearly 5 percentage points over the same period.

Meanwhile, the country has seen a remarkable growth in the enrollment of students at religious non-Catholic schools, particularly in the South. That expansion took place during a fraught period of America’s slow-moving culture war, as the Supreme Court moved to ban prayer in public schools; the authors also note that court-mandated desegregation orders may have led middle- and upper-class families to flee the public school system in the same way that their Northern counterparts were moving from the cities to the suburbs.

If the South’s more affluent families came to view private schools as an escape hatch from a school system that was increasingly racially mixed, it would explain why the 90-50 gap doubled there between 1968 to 2013, to an extraordinary 14 percentage points.

Murnane said that the growth of non-Catholic religious schools should spark more research. While Catholic schools have been a part of America’s educational framework for over a century, and have worked hard to adapt to the era of educational accountability (about half of the nation’s 195 dioceses adopted the Common Core learning standards, for instance), the non-Catholic religious sector is newer and much more opaque.

“Very little is known about the non-Catholic religious schools. Because Catholic schools were the dominant provider, they were included in a great many of the Department of Education longitudinal studies. There have been lots of books written about how effective Catholic schools are. But these other schools — much less is known about what they teach, what kids learn.”

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