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Catholic Schools Give America More Than Chump Change

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I've bought pizza, chaperoned dances, donated to annual appeals -- all fundraisers for Catholic schools -- and paid tuition. Which is why I am bent out of shape by an article on church finances in the Aug. 18 issue of The Economist. The article in the magazine that defines itself as "authoritative" makes all kinds of claims without data to back them up. Most annoying is its blithe statement that local and federal government "bankroll" Catholic schools.

The article is filled with errors, such as its guess that church giving dropped by 20 percent since the sex abuse scandal grabbed headlines in 2002 and henceforth. Real data from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) indicate, however, that church giving increased significantly in that period. CARA researcher Mark Gray noted on Aug. 21 that "on average, Catholic households gave about $8 in weekly collections in 2000 and today they give about $10. Even after adjusting for the effects of inflation, annual offertory in parishes in the U.S. grew from $361,000 in 2000 to 478,000 in 2010." Adds Gray, who spends his life crunching numbers, "there is no evidence I know of that Catholic parish weekly collections have declined."

At the start of another school year it is worth highlighting the church's contribution to American education. The government has a mandate to educate youth, and some public schools in well-off suburbs perform spectacularly; in other areas, not so well. However, in meeting its obligation, the government gets huge help from the Catholic Church, to the tune of about $23 billion a year. That is what the government does not have to pay for students because Catholic schools educate about 2 million U.S. students annually. Catholic schools provide a realistic choice in education. Given this $23 billion, you could argue it's the church subsidizing the government (or "bankrolling," it if you wish to use The Economist's hyperbole), not vice versa. In many nations the government subsidizes Catholic schools, but in the U.S., government aid to non-public schools is minimal. In fact, other than the DC Opportunity Scholarship program, which helps fewer than 2,000 students, no U.S. government programs fund non-public schools. In some school districts, government pays for textbooks and transportation, but even that aid is for students, not schools. It does not pay for heat, light, building repair or the principal's salary, for example. In some impoverished areas, students receive remedial help, whether they go to a public school or parochial school. Again, such aid is for students, not schools. In fact the money does not go directly to the Catholic school, but to a public school central office, earning interest for the public schools until the district meets its financial responsibilities for needy students. Who benefits from the Catholic schools? The entire nation. The National Catholic Education Association provides informative data here from the 2010-2011 school year.
  • Catholic schools help more than Catholics. Non-Catholic enrollment is 15.4 percent. In the urban/inner-city, the percentage of non-Catholic students soars to 42 percent.
  • Minority enrollment is 30.2 percent.
  • The average per pupil tuition in parish elementary schools is3,673. That is approximately 62.4 percent of actual costs per pupil of5,367. About 93.9 percent of elementary schools provide some form of tuition assistance.
  • The mean freshman tuition in a Catholic secondary school is8,182. That is approximately 80 percent of actual costs per pupil of10,228. About 97 percent of secondary schools provide some form of tuition assistance.
  • An estimated 99 percent of Catholic secondary school students graduate, and 84 percent go on to college, compared to 44.1 percent of public school students.
How do Catholic schools meet the shortfall between actual cost and what families pay? Primarily through direct subsidy from parishes, dioceses, religious orders, development programs and fund-raising activities. The Economist ought to be embarrassed. A little fact-checking would have gone a long way. When it comes to who is helping whom, the church's contribution to America is worth $23 billion annually. Not exactly chump change.