For today's Common Good Forum, we are featuring an essay by Nicole Garnett. Nicole is a law professor at Notre Dame, a Fellow of the Institute for Educational Initiatives, and the Senior Policy Coordinator for the Alliance for Catholic Education. Her most recent book: Lost Classroom, Lost Community: Catholic Schools' Importance in Urban America (University of Chicago Press, 2014)  examines the effects of Catholic school closures on urban neighborhoods.

On Wednesday, October 29, the Archdiocese of Chicago announced plans to close or consolidate a dozen Catholic schools at the end of this school year.  In response, the Chicago Sun-Times ran an editorial with a simple, striking title:  “Sad Day When Catholic Schools Close.”  That sentiment undoubtedly resonates with Cardinal Francis George, who made the difficult decision to shutter schools that had educated the minds and hearts of generations of young people, some for over a century.  It resonates with me too. 

But, except as a convenient excuse for kicking the Church when it’s down, I suspect the sentiment was not all that widespread.  Over 2000 schools K-12 Catholic schools have closed in the last two decades, and nobody expects the hemorrhaging to stop anytime soon.  The secular world essentially ignores the Catholic school crisis, and, when confronted with it, shrugs and responds:  “So what?  We don’t need them anymore. We have charter schools.” 

Even within the Church, there is a pervasive sense of resignation, a nagging suspicion that the game may be up.  As Cardinal Dolan has observed, sometimes we are seized by a “hospice mentality”—as if the best thing to do for Catholic schools is to keep them as comfortable as possible while they slowly die.  Some Catholics of good will undoubtedly think Catholic schools simply don’t make sense anymore and ask instead if the Church shouldn’t devote the enormous resources consumed by running schools to other critical ministries (especially since the majority of Catholic kids now attend public schools).

Catholic schools are, to be sure, resource- and time-consuming.  But they are worth it.  They are irreplaceable.  Consider, for a moment, what we would lose when Catholic schools close.  We lose precious sources of educational pluralism—schools that stand out, in a secular age, as counter cultural witnesses to the possibility of integrating authentic faith with academic excellence.  And, as decades of social science research demonstrates, we lose schools that have long represented an educational lifeline and the hope for a brighter future for disadvantaged and minority children.

As my recent book with Margaret Brinig, Lost Classroom, Lost Community, demonstrates, when Catholic schools close, we also lose powerful incubators of social capital.  Social capital is the glue that holds us together as a society, and that enables communities to overcome things like poverty that predict crime and disorder.  In our book, we measured the effects of Catholic school closures on urban neighborhoods in Chicago and Philadelphia.  Our findings starkly illustrate what is at stake for poor urban communities when Catholic schools close.  Even after controlling for demographics, we find that neighborhoods that lose their Catholic schools become more disorderly, less socially cohesive, and more dangerous than neighborhoods where Catholic schools remain open.  Here are a few of our sobering findings:

  • Catholic school closures in Chicago between 1984 and 1994 predicted substantial between-neighborhood variance in the levels of social cohesion and disorder in 1995. Using data obtained from a survey conducted by the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods, we found that residents of neighborhoods where Catholic schools closed had less cohesive and more disorderly communities than residents of neighborhoods with open Catholic schools.
  • While serious crime declined across the City of Chicago between 1999-2005 (in keeping with national trends), it declined more slowly in police beats where Catholic schools closed. In contrast to the city-wide average of a 25 percent decline, serious crime fell by only 17 percent in police beats experiencing Catholic school closures. 
  • Between 1999 and 2005, the presence of an open Catholic school in a police beat was consistently associated with lower crime across the city of Chicago. Although the percentage difference varied by year, the crime rate in police beats with Catholic schools was, on average, at least 33 percent lower than in police beats without them.

In other words, Catholic schools are more than important educational institutions, they are critical community institutions.  The costs of Catholic school closures are not only felt by displaced students and their families, but experienced by entire communities. We do not know for certain why Catholic schools are such good neighborhood citizens, but we do know for certain that neighborhoods suffer when Catholic schools close.   And communities that already struggle with poverty, disorder, and crime, desperately need stabilizing institutions, including Catholic schools. 

To be sure, the challenges facing Catholic schools are real. In order to ensure a future with vibrant, thriving K-12 Catholic schools, more must be done to strengthen and transform them—more to form transformational school leaders, more to recruit Latinos, more to ensure that every Catholic school is unrivalled in academic excellence, more to reinvigorate Catholic school culture, more to ensure that Catholic schools are both financially viable and affordable for families of modest means (including vigorously promoting parental-choice policies).  And Catholics need to regain faith that these goals are attainable.  Our culture, our children, and our communities need Catholic schools.