My Complicated Relationship with Catholic Education


Mike Dwyer

Mike Dwyer is a former writer and contributor at Ordinary Times.

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39 Responses

  1. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    While the number of Catholic clergy might be dwindling, isn’t the Catholic Church a very wealthy and theoretically unified international organization? Shouldn’t it be possible for the Archbishops and Cardinals of America to lobby the Vatican for money to subsidize Catholic schools and help keep costs down or use some of their own money to do so. I know the Church keeps a hush-hush attitude about its wealth but it isn’t a poor organization.Report

    • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to LeeEsq says:

      Lee – this is somewhat true at the grade school level but the high schools largely operate independent of the archdiocese. They are also not attached to parishes where they could draw on weekly tithing. Report

    • Avatar Kolohe in reply to LeeEsq says:

      I would guess the Catholic Church in the United States already financially subsidizes most of the rest of the world, including Europe – or if Dioceses are expected to be self-sustaining, as I suspect is the case, then I’m thinking the financial condition of the US Dioceses, I’m thinking, are better than anywhere – including central command.

      The US is the 4th largest in number of adherents, and those adherents far richer than any of the top 3 (Brazil, Mexico, Philippines) (even if many of them are fellow countrymen, recently or several generations removed)

      More importantly, even though the Church in Europe (particularly Italy, the 5th largest in # of adherents) it’s literally old money in every sense of the term- lots of assets, but not as much in the way of cash flow, particularly as Church attendance continues to decline. (though Italy is somewhat higher than most of western Europe. But still far behind the US)

      (what the rest of the world provides is a labor recruiting pool – West Africa, and Nigeria in particular, is exporting priests all over the world, and many to the US)Report

    • Avatar Marchmaine in reply to LeeEsq says:

      Most diocese will publish an annual report. My Diocese, the Diocese of Arlington (Northern Virginia) is among the wealthiest. Arlington is cash positive, and is socking away money

      It runs 51 schools (6 High Schools) at an annual operating cost of $80M on $81M in Revenues. Approximately $55M revenues come from Tuition. The rest is subsidized. The schools themselves are being run at a target of net $0 income.

      Besides the annual subsidies, the Diocese also subsidizes the growth with capital acquisition of Land and self-funds the building expenses.

      Basically, in the Diocese Arlington, there are three main divisions: Diocesan Mission, Schools, Parish Mission(s). It’s rather pedestrian and depressingly SMB Corporate; but Catholic Education is being run on a safe and conservative fiscal model, generously subsidized by the general funds.

      One could push for a more aggressive growth and greater subsidies (we live in an area that is under-served by the Diocesan education mission). But, with expansion comes risk, and the Church is poorly equipped to unwind “services” when they are no long sustainable… witness the agony of several other dioceses that are contracting operations.

      The education model has radically changed in the past 100 yrs. Catholic education is not terribly exciting right now, it is definitely being pinched on labor and facilities costs, and the response has been to make the business model more like a regular school than a radical parallel structure of the past… but that critique is just that parochial schools are too normal.Report

  2. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    Both of my kids went to Catholic middle and high schools, because they were the best schools we could afford. The middle school was highly subsidized; the high schools were not, but were still half the price of a non-parochial private high school. They got amazing educations, and I don’t regret the expense.

    The high schools in particular fostered religious values without being sectarian. The open house at which my son fell in love with his featured students of all denominations explaining why they loved the school, including a Jewish girl whose ambition was to become a cantor. This was great for us, but I’ll ask Mike D.: is that a good thing, or does it mean that the schools aren’t focusing enough on their duty to children who are Catholics?Report

    • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      Mike – in my experience a Catholic education is less about religion and more about broader Catholic ideas of social justice, etc. Specifically though we received religion class every single day and it was based in Catholic theology with an emphasis on understanding not just our Church but the history of all faiths. It was more of a church history class than anything else. Interestingly I was taught by priests all four years and never heard a negative word said about another faith. It made me far more progressive about religion than most of my non-Catholic friends of faith.Report

  3. Avatar Kolohe says:

    I looked it up and the Catholic high school in area I grew up in. It’s is also about 12.5K a year (but you get a group discount with multiple kids enrolled simultaneously!) and at least twice as much as when I might of been eligible for attendance.

    But I would note that it’s still at least 25% less than other private schools in the area. And far, far less than the really elite names in the area.

    And this is also in an area where the public schools are (or can be, depending on county and district) really, really good. But which also cost a lot more per pupil then they did ‘back in the day’ (and have the property tax hikes to backstop it)

    So, there is the matter of education from any source (like health care) just being more expensive overall than it was, and with prices that are increasing faster than inflation. But still a good ‘deal’ if that’s what you want.

    Because frankly, if you’re in a halfway decent public school system*, a parochial education *is* somewhat of a luxury, necessary only if you want a level of faith eduction beyond CCD – and a level of discipline(?)** the public schools naturally can’t provide.

    *my mother went to parochial school, as the city public schools were considered not so hot. Likewise all the cousins in my generation that didn’t flee to the suburbs got a parochial eduction. But all of us that went to the suburbs, went to public schools

    **I don’t know if that differential between parochial and public anymore – Fewer nuns, I gotta think, means fewer nuns with rulers, too.Report

    • Avatar Squeelookle in reply to Kolohe says:

      Beware Da Penguin.Report

    • Avatar Alan Scott in reply to Kolohe says:

      Were nuns with rulers actually as widespread a thing as they’re made out to be? My Grandmother, now well into her eighties, went to catholic elementary, high school, and college.

      She said that sort of physical discipline didn’t happen at her school–a nun new to the school struck her once when she was about eight–but the nun was removed from her teaching position because of the incident.Report

      • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to Alan Scott says:


        I think it was more the threat than an actual systematic punishment system. To be sure though we got popped occassionally, especially by lay teachers in high school. I had one teacher who would whack us with a yard stick but it wasn’t meant to hurt. It was just a reminder to not cut up in class.

        I DID have a nun that was about 150 years old as a piano teacher when I was a kid. She had an old antenna from a radio that she used and would occassionally hit my fingers with it when I wasn’t following her instructions.Report

  4. Avatar Kazzy says:

    FWIW, many of the trends you discuss here are not unique to parochial schools but are broader trends in independent/private schools. I can pull some data when I’m on a computer tomorrow.

    One thing to consider is the quality of the education offered. Not only did the clergy earn less, but they were generally less credentialed. You’d be hard-pressed to find a layperson teaching in an upper tier parochial school who didn’t at least have a masters. We can debate the quality of teacher-education programs, but I’d still bet that collectively they make better teachers than whatever the church did to train its clergy-as-teachers.Report

    • Avatar Patrick in reply to Kazzy says:

      This is generally true of diocesan schools but not as true of the Jesuit-run schools back then; Jesuits all have advanced degrees and they usually taught all the classes.

      Now the classes are predominantly taught by laypersons, but while they’re typically less credentialed than a public school teacher they also skew towards more overall degree advancement (at least, last time I checked).Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Patrick says:

        Independent school teachers are less credentialed only insofar as they do not typically have state certification. This is because they aren’t required to, unlike their public school counterparts.

        I meet all the criteria for certification in my state save for one test (out of three) I haven’t taken. But since I don’t need it and it wouldn’t do anything for me as either a candidate for a position or for salary, I see little reason to spend my Saturday taking a test.

        Public schools do typically require ongoing education in a more formalized way than most independents, but this doesn’t always lead towards more degrees (most courses are often taken for non-credit).

        Good point regarding Jesuits. They are unique in that they were founded with an eye towards education. My undergrad was a Jesuit university and had a better-than-average education school as a result.

        Big time catholic high schools, especially in major cities, are some of the more sought after jobs around. As a result, you’re going to have a higher caliber of teacher than if you are just filling the classrooms with priests and nuns.Report

      • Avatar Patrick in reply to Patrick says:

        Big time catholic high schools, especially in major cities, are some of the more sought after jobs around.

        Yes, there’s that too.

        Back when I worked at Loyola High School, my impression was that outside of Harvard-Westlake we had the highest payroll per teacher capita than any private high school in the greater Los Angeles area. We certainly had one of the better benefits packages, as well.

        At the time, Loyola also had far and away the lowest tuition (we were one fifth of Harvard-Westlake’s), due to the very large endowment. The school had some issues with the endowment that led to changes in the tuition, but they’re still remarkably cheap.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Patrick says:

        For that reason, Catholic schools are often much better on certain diversity front than their secular counterparts. And with less fanfare. Between lower tuition, a purpose/mission that goes beyond the school itself, and being founded for generally non-elitist rationales, they’re simply better situated than the school down the road that started to preserve an “ol’ boys network” and which now makes a point to have a profound diversity statement but does little real effortReport

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Patrick says:

        Aren’t the Quaker schools the exclusive ones in NYC?Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Patrick says:


        It depends on what you mean by “exclusive”. All independent schools are “exclusive” in the sense that they do not allow just anyone to attend. All have limited seats, with a far less elastic ceiling than a college. If you simply look at admission rates (admitted students/applicants), I’m not sure what you’d find, but it wouldn’t really tell you anything about the culture of the school; it’d really just be a look at its popularity relative to its size.

        In my experience, Quaker schools tend to be the most inclusive, welcoming, and tolerant atmospheres. I haven’t worked in one, but am incredibly interest in doing so. As I understand them, it is the type of independent I would want my own children in (should we go that route). And it is that way in large part because of it’s Quaker heritage.Report

    • Avatar ScarletNumbers in reply to Kazzy says:


      We can debate the quality of teacher-education programs, but I’d still bet that collectively they make better teachers than whatever the church did to train its clergy-as-teachers.

      Considering that the biggest dunces at any college can be found at the College of Education, I would take this bet.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to ScarletNumbers says:


        My experience agrees with your statement here, namely that the caliber of student in education programs tends to be less than that in most other programs. But that’s not exactly what I’m getting at. The priests/nuns might be collectively smarter than the teachers, but if they don’t have formal training in development, pedagogy, assessment, and the like, they still probably make inferior teachers.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to ScarletNumbers says:

        Also, I just saw your response on LF47, but the comments are closed there. I wholeheartedly sign on to your burgers-from-WM/fries-from-McD’s trick. The fires at WM really are a letdown.

        Did you know there is another WM in Jersey City on the 1&9? I used to drive by it when visiting a friend in the Heights. The signage and exterior looks the same (right down to the building being about the size of my thumb), but I don’t know if it is formerly affiliated. Have you been? I’ve heard that White Manna more or less invented the slider and it was a big Jersey thing with White Castle becoming the franchise that made it. Do you know if there is any truth to that?Report

  5. Avatar Cathy says:

    Oh my, Catholic school… So many (potential) benefits, but my personal experience was not stellar, to the point that I would have to be seriously persuaded ever to consider the option for my own hypothetical kids.

    The Catholic schools in my hometown have had a “middle way” function for some time now; they’re the solution for families who can’t get their kids into charter schools, can’t/won’t move to the suburbs, and have some money to spend on a school but not enough for the non-religious private schools in the area. (Hometown City School District being pretty uniformly terrible, for years now.)

    My parents generally falling into the category described above, my sister and I went to a non-parochial Catholic school; her until 10th grade, me until 8th. The high school was separate, physically and culturally, from the K-8 school, and it was all girls. Those things made it less attractive to me (the K-8 school was in the city, the high school out in the suburbs, with a correspondingly whiter and more sheltered population), but the clincher was the curriculum.*

    As was pointed out above, many Catholic schools, especially at the high school level, are more about education and general values, rather than Catholicism-specific indoctrination. THIS high school, however, was a bit too much in the latter category for me to stomach. Required sophomore science class was Bioethics, and not the interesting kind of where you do critical thinking; more like “stem cell research is bad because Reasons.” The Religion classes were likewise more about being a good Catholic – and, specifically, a good Catholic WOMAN, which of course is the part that really made me steam at the ears.

    The real problem was the comparison with its “partner” Jesuit school. That school was all boys; this one, as I mentioned, was all girls. They would do dances and theater together and stuff. From my middle school, all the girls went to Girls School (except me), and the boys went to Jesuit School. The gender of a family’s children being a coin flip, many families in Hometown’s Catholic community had at least one child at each school. Jesuit School, being Jesuit, had actual science classes, and Comparative Theology where they actually studied other religions and, you know, actually discussed concepts instead of being expected to accept things by default. It also had MUCH nicer facilities, to the point that when both schools were being renovated at the same time, some of the fixture being removed from Jesuit School were installed in Girls School. Undoubtedly this was a wise money-saving move on Girls School’s part. However, the fact that they have the same parent group, and that many of the area alumni of both schools send their children to both schools, makes me raise more eyebrows than I have at the disparate funding available to each.

    tl;dr – Not all Catholic schools are created equal, and some of them have more dogma and sexism than I want to shake a stick at. Blerg.

    * I should note, in fairness to Girls School, that it did also provide its students a good education, including sending all or almost all of its graduates to 4-year colleges, and most of my friends that attended would probably characterize their experience as at least adequate. It’s just the side order of “and then after college, when you’re married and generally upholding community norms…” that rubbed me all the wrong way.Report

    • Avatar ScarletNumbers in reply to Cathy says:

      Hometown City School District being pretty uniformly terrible, for years now.

      What makes it uniformly terrible?Report

      • Avatar Cathy in reply to ScarletNumbers says:

        Currently unaccredited, in and out of accreditation for years now, 17% dropout rate, 57% high school graduation rate (pretty much the worst in the state), revolving door of superintendents, meeting barely any of the state performance standards, which were already one of the lower bars in the country…

        Basically, we’re not talking “I wish there were more enrichment opportunities,” we’re talking, “I want my kid reading at at least a 9th grade level when they graduate the 12th grade.”

        According to my parents, when they went to look around the local public elementary school, the teacher they talked to told them that since they cared enough about their kids’ education to check out schools, they should send them somewhere else. That was some time ago, but the picture hasn’t really gotten any better.Report

  6. Many of the kids I went to school with in the 80s and 90s also came from blue collar backgrounds. My father was a welder and my mother worked for the post office. By my estimate about 20% of the kids in my grade school had a parent at the local GE plant. These types of professions were typical. To be sure, we had some kids from well-off homes but they were in the minority. While my school at that time was a pretty decent model of economic diversity, the perception from outside the walls was that we were all rich kids. Never mind the reality, in those days if your parents were willing to write a check for your education you were seen by many as an elitist.

    I don’t really know the specifics of your family or of your locality, but in some places after WWII and through, say, the early 1980s (sometimes later, sometimes earlier), being blue collar in certain trades or working lesser skilled jobs for certain companies could put someone in a position that relatively was better off financially. So maybe the charge of elitism can be more understandable, even if it remains inaccurate

    Again, I don’t know your situation. My father was an electrician and my mother had a variety of what, to use a term I dislike, can be called “pink collar” jobs, and by the time I came around, they/we were very well off. Not rolling in the dough, but well-enough off that they could’ve paid for parochial school even at what I presume were the elevated prices in the late 1980s/early 1990s. (I was born late, and when my parents were raising my 5 siblings, they probably had to economize much more.)Report

  7. Avatar Damon says:

    I went to public school but when I moved east I met and got to know a lot of folks that had gone to Catholic schools up through high school-they generally fit the same demographic as described in the OP. What STUNNED me was the physical abuse inflicted upon those studends. My now ex brother in law literally had a chair thrown at him by a nun…

    My neice and nephew seemed to escaped without physical damange, but they left before high school…so…who knows…Report

  8. Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

    I grew up in a farm town that was about half Catholic. There is a Catholic elementary school, after which most of the kids go to the public Jr/Sr high school. Only the ones with money send their kids into the city to attend the Catholic high school there (and there’s never been many people in that town with money), so the Catholic school kids I went to high school with–a very large proportion of my high school–were like Mike, blue collar/middle class. Of course we’re talking about the 70s/80s, so perhaps my perceptions are out-dated.Report

  9. Avatar Squeelookle says:

    I have the same mixed feelings about my school, which was Episcopal instead of Catholic. I visited it a couple of years ago and it barely resembles the school I attended two and a half decades ago. The kids are much whiter, much preppier, the facilities much “nicer”, and the faculty a whole lot less religious. I have no doubt that those who attend are getting a good education but I also suspect that those who can afford to attend are already being given significant advantages in life, advantages now being denied to all but a chosen scholarship-worthy few of the “hoi polloi.” Given that when I attended, my family were part of the “hoi polloi” and given that I am now being asked to donate money to a school that has raised tuition at a rate of more than 25 times inflation, it makes me wonder if supporting the school is a worthwhile or christian thing to do.Report

  10. Avatar Pinky says:

    One thing I haven’t seen raised on this thread is the matter of discipline. In my day (1970’s), a lot of the kids who went to the Catholic school were trouble-makers. If your child was on the verge of expulsion, you sent him to Catholic school to escape his old “permanent record” and maybe they’d keep him in line long enough for him to get a diploma. It made for a tense situation, half of the school academic achievers and half delinquents.Report

  11. Avatar Kazzy says:

    Assuming you all can access this, here is a pretty detailed breakdown of independent school tuitions:

    It doesn’t break out parochial schools (which I had assumed) but still gives you a general idea of the range of tuitions. Just using what Mike offered here, his alma mater’s tuition (approximately $12K) is about 58% of the median tuition for independent day high schools.Report

  12. Avatar Kyle Cupp says:

    Important questions, Mike.Report

  13. Avatar Philip H says:

    your description of Catholic school is interesting to me as another Son of the South who grew up around a vibrant Catholic School system (though as good Presbyterians, my family never had a religious affiliation with them). In south Louisiana, Catholic/ Parochial schools formed a secondary school system, both in town in Baton rouge, New Orleans, Lafayette, and the like, as well as in rural Parishes. the fact that we had Parishes and not counties should tell you something about the important of the Catholic Church to our heritage and governance. Catholic School kids went to school on Parish public school buses; they played in our football conferences; and other then the uniforms when there was a state wide school event, you often saw them intermingling with local school kids. Catholic students in the rural Parishes and school districts (as well as some parts of New Orleans) were as you described – largely lower middle class or poorer students who were in the school because it was a better alternative then public schools. When I was in elementary school, it was a real mix – some of the other professors kids I grew up with went to Catholic schools, as did some of the oil refinery kids; but by highschool the Catholic highs in Baton Rouge were dominated by the local monied elite.

    Then desegregation came in 1980 through the federal courts, and all sorts of private schools began to swell in rank as the parents pulled their kids from public schools in white flight. It was tragic – kids saw friendships broken simply because their parents couldn’t stomach having a kid around black students all day. And in East Baton Rouge, very few people of color (including Asian) were to be found in Catholic Schools, no matter whether they could afford it. Thankfully that began changing steadily in the 1990’s, and with today’s laws in Louisiana, Catholic Schools are enjoying a renaissance under Gov. Jindal’s push for vouchers. But the Catholic system you describe was not all that universal.Report