Seeking a comeback for Catholic education

Robert Ehrlich says the decline of Catholic schools in Baltimore is a tragedy for the city's young people

April 15, 2013|Bob Ehrlich

As many of you know, I was born and raised in solidly working class Arbutus. My family's Protestantism qualified us as an anomaly; the majority of the neighborhood kids were Catholic. Most attended local Catholic schools such as Ascension, Our Lady of Victory, and St. Mark's. A majority of them went on to graduate high school at Cardinal Gibbons, Mount St. Joe, or Seton.

This school experience provided parents an attractive "three-fer": religious instruction, challenging academics and excellent athletics — at a reasonable price, to boot. These attributes drove enrollment to unprecedented heights in the 1960s when more than 5.2 million children attended approximately 13,000 Catholic schools around the nation. Solidly Catholic Maryland led the way.

There was another (demographic) aspect to Catholic education that gradually became known to me over the years, and one that should be central to the future of Catholic (and all parochial) education. I refer to the influx of mostly poor African-American and Hispanic students into Archdiocesan schools over the past 40 years.

Shifting urban/suburban trends explained the phenomenon. Many Catholic schools are located in urban and inner-suburban neighborhoods negatively impacted by inner-city blight and middle-class flight during the '70s and '80s. As a result, the church began recruitment efforts aimed at a new demographic. The results speak for themselves: Black and Hispanic students accounted for 10.8 percent of total Catholic school enrollment in 1970, 19.4 percent in 1980, 29.8 percent in 2010, and 34 percent today.

This profound racial/ethnic shift brought a poorer, more challenging population of students along with it. What had been schools chock full of working- and middle-class children taught by nuns who vowed poverty (a huge break for the budgetary bottom line) now took in more kids from the lower end of the economic spectrum — and many more kids in need of financial aid. And this at a time when the church began to be hit with hundreds of millions of dollars in priest sex scandal judgments, a cash drain that has placed eight archdioceses in bankruptcy and many more in dire fiscal straits.

The combination of urban economic realities and extraordinary legal judgments impacted Catholic school systems as well: Between 1970 and 2000, there was a net loss of 3,595 Catholic schools nationwide. The trend continued in the new millennium; in 2005, 38 Catholic schools opened while 223 either closed or merged.

It was against this backdrop that I engaged in my well-reported skirmishes with the defenders of dysfunctional public schools in Baltimore in 2005-2006. I followed a two-pronged plan of attack: 1) Use the provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act to close, merge or privatize the most dysfunctional 13 public schools in Baltimore; and 2) Ask/plead with the Catholic hierarchy to stop closing schools in and around the city.

I was less than successful on both counts. First, the Democratic leadership and city teachers union put a legislative stop to the remedial actions necessary to transform the problematic city schools. It was a familiar storyline: a powerful teachers union and Democratic party monopoly (desperate to avoid the black eye of failure) trumping poor kids — again. And to make matters worse, the Archdiocese continued to close schools. As one prominent church leader told me at the conclusion of a private meeting over the school closure issue: "These [city Catholic] schools are not a core mission of the church." My frustration was palpable, to say the least.

My unapologetic enthusiasm for Catholic education goes far beyond an appreciation of a disciplined and more rigorous academic environment. These schools are mini-economic engines and safe havens for kids in some of our more violence-prone neighborhoods. They support jobs, labor income, and business sales in tough places. And they save a lot of taxpayer money. The Sage Policy Group estimates that Maryland saved roughly $200 million in expenditures due to the presence of Catholic schools in 2008-2009.

In a perfect world, healthy public, private and parochial schools would compete for prospective students. But we live in the real world, where so many poor kids continue to be sentenced to dysfunctional schools. The sad fact is that every Catholic school closure means more kids placed in too often dangerous and academically substandard schools. Society is left to deal with the less-than-stellar results — at a cost that too often goes beyond the financial.

Here's hoping that under Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori's innovative leadership, Catholic education will once again assume the priority status it deserves in the church's new game plan. A lot of kids in our most challenging neighborhoods would benefit. The state (and country) would benefit, too.

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding and the author of "Turn this Car Around," a book about national politics. His email is

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