Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools: A Descriptive Picture

Few dispute that policy discussions ought to be grounded in and informed by accurate data. Furthermore, clichés and stereotypes are seldom to be trusted. They often cloud rather than enlighten one’s perspective on an issue. These remarks are especially true when applied to a discussion on the role federal, state, and local governments should play in public and private education.

What follows contributes to this discussion by presenting data on the largest sector of the private elementary and secondary school community — the Catholic sector — collected over the last several years by the Data Bank of the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA). It opens with some remarks along with supporting data on the role Catholic schools have played in the United States and some of the major characteristics of these schools. The next two sections overview enrollment and financial data. All of this issues in a descriptive picture that contradicts much of the conventional wisdom and many of the stereotypes some have of these schools.

Role and Major Characteristics

US Catholic schools have played an historic role. They offer parents the opportunity to exercise one of the most fundamental constitutionally guaranteed rights they possess: the right to choose that form of schooling which best mirrors the religious and moral value orientation they affirm. These schools serve this nation as an outward sign, a concrete visible embodiment of this fundamental right. They have done so not only since its beginnings, but also during colonial times.

These schools possess certain characteristics. What follows is a synopsis of 12 of them. Except where mentioned, there is no claim to these being the exclusive preserve of Catholic schools. Supporting data is offered where appropriate.

1) Catholic schools share with all private schools the constitutionally guaranteed belief mentioned above: parents have the right to choose their child’s form of schooling.

2) Catholic schools share with 80% of the private school community an explicit relationship with a religious denomination. In other words, they are Church related. They are, then, a particular kind of private school — one which affirms that education must include the considerations and values of a specific religious orientation — Catholic Christianity — and the commitment these values evoke. This is done without compromising academic standards and excellence.

3) Catholic schools are a specific type of private school. This uniqueness is seen by discussing the four types of Catholic schools which exist: a) single parish, b) inter- parish, c) diocesan, and d) private. Each involves a different approach to and perspective on ownership, finances, administration, and staffing.

In other words, a Catholic school can be owned, financed, staffed, and administered by a single parish, several parishes (both of these are also referred to as parochial schools), a diocese (diocesan school), a particular religious order (private or order school). Over 95% of the elementary schools and almost 30% of the secondary schools are parish-related.

4) Based on this diverse approach to types, the “Catholic school system” is not really a system in the same sense other school systems are systems. Rather, the Catholic system is one in which some schools are closely connected with a diocesan office and superintendent while others are connected more peripherally.

5) Catholic schools are subject to local control. This is clearly seen in regard to parish schools. They are not only in but of a neighborhood. Accountability is demanded by local leaders working with parents and parish pastors. There is also some accountability to a diocesan superintendent, but the great emphasis on the managerial principal known as subsidiarity works against the formation of huge, central bureaucracies. Subsidiarity forbids a larger unit — e.g., a diocese — from doing what a smaller unit — e.g., a school — can do better by and for itself.

6) Because of this emphasis on the local, Catholic schools place great stress on parental involvement. This transpires by means of home-school associations, the local board of education, teacher aides who are parents, etc. For example, almost 35% of Catholic parishes have total boards of education with close to 50% of these total boards of education having specific school education committees. Slightly over 40% of Catholic secondary schools have their own board of education. In being responsive and accountable to parents a sense of ownership and commitment to what the school is trying to achieve is developed.

7) The reverse side of parental involvement has to do with the other two members of the school community — staff and students. A close working relationship between parents and staff is encouraged and results from parental involvement. This relationship helps to create a positive school climate within which a sense of belonging to and involvement in the school on the part of the student is made possible.

8) A Catholic school is not just an entity unto itself. It is part of a larger environment — a parish or a Church community — where learning is seen to take place not just in a classroom. It also occurs within and through that larger community composed of responsible caring adults. Furthermore, the approach taken to learning is a critical, integrated one. It stresses that all questions and decisions have implicit within them a value dimension that must be discussed.

9) The community service programs which are part of the Catholic school experience add another dimension to the task of educating an informed and critical citizenry, that end to which Catholic schools are dedicated. These programs suggest that responsible living includes a concern for those in our neighborhood and local community who are in need of special forms of care.

10) Catholic schools serve all residential patterns. Slightly over 50% are in urban areas with slightly over 29% in the suburbs and slightly under 21% in rural areas.

11) Catholic schools play a crucial and irreplaceable role in educating those who are in need of special education as well as minority groups. Whether looking at its past history or examining the present, this point is clear. To disregard it is to avoid the facts.

According to data collected in 1978, there were slightly over 300 Catholic facilities enrolling slightly more than 20,000 special education students. These facilities include residential and non-residential ones from preschool to adulthood. More specifically, they comprise places such as vocational work training centers, half-way houses, sheltered workshops, itinerant programs, extended care facilities, group homes, after care centers, as well as other specific programs which offer services.

12) Catholic schools and the education they impart have not led to divisiveness in American society. Rather, in educating the many immigrant and minority groups which have passed through its doors, they have transmitted and fostered in these students a basic commitment to the fundamental principles of American democracy. As James Coleman and colleagues conclude in recent research, Catholic schools in America have functioned as “common schools” in the best sense of the word.

The Enrollment Situation

There are four items which overview the enrollment situation.

1) The Catholic sector comprises the largest segment of the private school universe.

In 1982-83, approximately 3,027 students or more than 60% of the students enrolled in private schools are in Catholic schools. They employ about 53% of all full-time teachers working in private schools.

2) There are regional enrollment trends emerging in the Catholic school sector.

The Southeast and the West/Farwest show the most significant increases in enrollment since 1975. Though the Mideast and Great Lakes continue to enroll almost 60% of all students, the shift is in the direction of the Southeast and West/Farwest.

This shift is also apparent in looking at new school openings and enrollment increases. Of the 14 new elementary and four secondary schools opened in 1980, all but three are in these two regions of the country. Of the 52 dioceses and archdioceses which showed increases in enrollment, 32 are from these same regions.

3) There are general as well as specific enrollment increases and school openings in many areas of the country.

From the 1979-80 to the 1980-81 school year, enrollment increased in 52 arch/dioceses, 11 states, and 1 region. Schools opened in 15 arch/dioceses and 6 states.

Black and Hispanic enrollment continues to increase. Since 1970-71, Black enrollment rose from 4.8% to 8.8% and Hispanic from 5.0% to 9.1%. The actual number of Black and Hispanic students today is approximately 540,900 or about 18% of the total enrollment. Catholic secondary schools enroll around 21% of this number with the rest attending elementary schools. When this figure is combined with the almost 74,300 Asian Americans and American Indians, the minority enrollment total in Catholic schools rises to 20.4%

A significant segment of this minority population is non- Catholic. Since 1969-70, this group increased from 2.7% to 10.6% with most of this being in large urban centers.

4) Pupil-teacher ratios continue to improve and lay staffing continues to increase.

Catholic schools continue to make a strong effort to improve staff and class size. The ratio of full-time teachers to students has fallen since 1968-69, from 31 elementary and 19 secondary students per full-time teacher to 23 and 16 respectively in 1982-83.

The shift from religious to lay staff continues to increase. In 1968-69, approximately 57% of the full-time teaching staff was composed of priests and religious with the remaining 43% lay people. A dramatic reversal has taken place since 1969. Lay staffing is now 76% while non-lay is 24%. This increase creates enormous financial strains and difficulties.

The Financial Situation

Precise financial information on Catholic schools is difficult to compile and interpret. There are several reasons for this.

First, the vast majority of Catholic elementary schools do not formally record contributed services, the dollar value of the donated services of religious community members or diocesan clergy. Catholic secondary schools usually do.

Another reason is that no information is collected from elementary and secondary schools on capital expenditures or debt retirement provisions. NCEA financial data includes only annual operating revenues and expenses.

Next, since there are three types of Catholic secondary schools — private diocesan, and parochial (both single and inter-parish) with various ways of owning, financing, administering, and staffing each of the types — there are really three different cost systems involved.

Fourth, operating costs vary by enrollment level, region, and specific location within a region — e.g., urban, suburban, rural.

Finally, in collecting data on sources of revenue, four categories are used on the elementary level while five are used on the secondary level:

a) contributed or donated services (secondary level); b) subsidy by diocese, parish or religious community (broken into parish and diocesan on the elementary level but only one category on the secondary level); c) fund raising — e.g., raffles, festivals, donations, etc. (elementary and secondary levels); e) other income — e.g., athletic receipts, net income from bookstore, etc. (included with fund raising on the elementary level but a distinctive category on the secondary level); f) tuition and fees (both elementary and secondary).

These points are not made to bewilder or confuse but to stress the complexity of the situation. They also reinforce an earlier comment: the Catholic school system is not a system in the way other school systems are systems. It is a meshing together of smaller systems loosely connected and coordinated by the office of superintendent. So then, financial data is difficult to determine and must be discussed with some caution. This is true because of the distinctive nature of the system, not because of bad accounting methods, the desire to be secretive, etc.

With these cautions in mind, we may now proceed to look at some specific figures which should be viewed as general estimates and guidelines. The elementary and secondary level will be examined separately.

Elementary Schools: The best estimate is that these schools spent about 1.5 billion for operating expenses in 1980-81. The average per pupil cost was $653. A look at what has taken place since 1969 suggests annual increases in operating expenses since the mid-70’s are in the 10% range.

From where does revenue come? Parish subsidy is the major source followed by tuition, fund raising, and diocesan subsidy.

Secondary Schools: Total funds spent for operating expenses in 1980-81 were about $1.127 billion. When contributed services are excluded from this, about $996 million was spent.

Per pupil costs vary depending upon the type of school and whether one takes into account or eliminates contributed services. Without accounting for contributed services in 1980-81, the average is $1,190, while with them it is $1,347.

The total operating revenue for 1980-81 was $1,236 million. About 80% of this goes to salaries and fringe benefits, no matter what school type is examined. From where does it come? For all three types of schools tuition and fees is the greatest source. This is followed by contributed services, subsidies, and fund raising — their order depending upon the school type.

Financial comparisons with public education on per pupil costs are difficult. This is so for two reasons: 1) The complexity of the Catholic education situation; 2) the 1980-81 National Education Association estimate on per pupil costs of $2,288 combines the elementary and secondary levels.

Nevertheless, a basic point is clear: per pupil costs are considerably lower in Catholic schools than public schools. The report by Andrew Greeley on Catholic High Schools and Minority Students suggests that secondary per pupil costs may be almost one half of that in the public schools. In analyzing this data, Greeley suggests the per pupil cost savings cannot be accounted for simply because in Catholic schools faculty pay is less, contributed services are rendered, or smaller faculties with fewer M.A.s or Ph.D.s are employed. What these precise factors are is difficult to ascertain. They are, though, connected with a point emphasized in part one — local control with less emphasis on central bureaucracy with a large overhead.

There is little doubt in the Catholic school community that one of the gravest — if not the gravest — problems facing Catholic schools is finances. One of the major reasons schools have not been built centers around the enormous capital outlay this requires and the fear of run-away operating costs. These operating cost fears are further magnified in the Catholic School situation by the increasing lay staff and the decreasing amount of contributed services.


The financial data available paints a less than rosy picture while the enrollment data presents a more positive picture. The difficult and, admittedly, explosive policy questions connected with financing private education must be faced if it is to play the historic role it has in America: offering parents the opportunity and option of exercising the constitutionally guaranteed right to choose that form of schooling which mirrors their religious and moral value orientation.


  • Bruno V. Manno

    Bruno V. Manno is a trustee emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and senior advisor to the K–12 Education Reform Initiative at the Walton Family Foundation.

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