Pope Francis’ School Visit: A Divinely Inspired Moment for Catholic Schools

This afternoon Pope Francis will be visiting a Catholic elementary school in Harlem. As I wrote on Tuesday, the particular choice of school is noteworthy because of its inclusion in the growing field of private school management organizations (PSMOs). But it is also exciting because of the spotlight it is shining on Catholic schools at a very important moment in their history.

As Andy Smarick and I document in our upcoming book, we may be witnessing the beginnings of a renaissance in Catholic education.

For centuries, Catholic schools have provided a high-quality education to some of our nation’s most disadvantaged children. Research shows that the achievement gap is smaller in faith-based schools; that Latino and African American students who attend Catholic schools are more likely to graduate high school and more likely to graduate college than their peers who attend public schools; that the poorer and more at-risk a student is, the greater the relative achievement gains in Catholic schools; and that graduates of Catholic high schools are more likely to earn higher wages, and more likely to vote, be civically engaged, be committed to service as adults, and are more tolerant of diverse views than their peers who graduate from public schools.

Yet despite these contributions, Catholic schools, especially those in urban areas, have faced staggering challenges. Factors including rising tuition costs, the loss of nuns and other religious staff members (whose work was essentially free to Catholic schools), demographic shifts in urban areas, and the growth of charter schools offering a free alternative to traditional district schools have together led to staggering enrollment loses and school closures.

At its peak in 1965, the Catholic schools sector boasted more than 13,000 schools educating approximately 5.3 million students. Today there are just 6,500 Catholic schools serving approximately 1.9 million students.

While the tireless work of pastors, teachers, philanthropists, and entrepreneurs has been able to stem the tide in some places, we are only beginning to see the outlines of a solution to this half-century problem.

New techniques of governing and funding Catholic schools are proving that these schools can be financially sustainable. New programs for recruiting, training, and retaining high-quality teachers and leaders are filling schools with a renewed energy and zeal. New organizations have sprung up to raise awareness about Catholic schools, to educate families about their options, and to support students in accessing scholarships to attend Catholic schools.

Together, such changes have created a much brighter, hopeful future for the Catholic schools sector. And the Pope’s visit to Our Lady Queen of Angels School—which has weathered these storms while providing a high-quality education to low-income and minority students in Harlem and the South Bronx—is coming at the perfect, perhaps divinely inspired, moment.

Focusing the nation’s attention on a single Catholic school will hopefully create awareness about the value of Catholic schools, especially those serving impoverished communities in our nation’s cities, and catalyze support for the exciting innovations happening in Catholic schools across the country.