After a summer of disappointment — closed camps, museums, movie theaters, even many pools, beaches and restaurants due to COVID concerns — the decision of many public and private schools to go entirely online is a crushing blow to parents.
Now I see that some localities are doing everything possible to interfere with Catholic schools that want to open for in-person learning. Montgomery County in Maryland backed off a ruling that Catholic schools were forbidden from opening, only after families and educators heroically opposed the order. Catholic schools are demanding that California Gov. Gavin Newsom allow in-person classes.
Why is this happening? Because public schools — which increasingly embrace anti-Catholic, radical secularism and feed it to our children — are afraid of losing families to Catholic education.
This should stir every Catholic parent to ask the question: Have I given serious thought this year to the option of Catholic education? Whatever the barriers that stood in our way in prior years, might something have changed that makes it possible now?
Cost is the most significant barrier to Catholic schools, and it remains a major concern. But increasingly there are cost-effective ways to provide your child a Catholic education. (Keep reading to the end.)
Also, fidelity and Catholic identity have been a serious concern over the past 50 years. Tragically, many Catholic families have found that the experimentation, immorality and downright nuttiness at many Catholic schools is scandalous. Many families have turned to homeschooling, but others have chosen public schools rather than confusing students with wayward Catholic education.
These are important concerns! However, the declining numbers of Catholic in faithful Catholic education is a catastrophe. Today we have a laity and even clergy that seem far less concerned about ensuring a Catholic education for every Catholic child.
That’s not a utopian dream. It is a clear teaching of the Church that every child has a right to a Catholic education… that every parent is the primary educator of their child and has the responsibility of ensuring a Catholic education… and that the Church is obligated to do everything it can to serve the needs of parents in providing Catholic education.
Sadly, we are far from this today. But the options are increasing, and unlike many public schools, much of Catholic education is open for in-person formation this fall.
Parochial schools: If you haven’t looked lately at the local Catholic school managed by your parish or diocese, it’s worth another look. There is an ongoing renewal of fidelity and Catholic identity across Catholic education, and many schools have re-emphasized the Mass, Eucharistic adoration and prayer. Catechesis is improving at many schools. Perhaps most importantly, there is growing emphasis on hiring teachers who fully embrace the Catholic faith and witness to Catholic moral teachings in both their words and their behaviors.
The cost of a parochial school education is still generally high — much too high, in my opinion. But dioceses have made a concerted effort to ensure financial support for low-income families. It’s the middle class that often has the greatest difficulty affording parochial schools.
Most parochial schools still embrace methods of modern education and the Common Core State Standards, which have been detrimental to education across the U.S. Some dioceses, however, are embracing explicitly Catholic curriculum standards, classical learning methods and a renewed focus on the liberal arts, with great results. Overall, Catholic schools still boast higher graduation rates and college acceptance rates than public schools.
Lay-run schools: There is a growing number of lay-run schools that provide a superior Catholic education at far less cost. Not every diocese is willing to recognize these schools, so you need to look very carefully to ensure that they are faithful to Catholic teaching, but I have visited and studied many of them, and for the most part they are very faithful schools that do an outstanding job of education and Catholic formation.
If you are looking for first-class facilities, computer labs, well-funded athletics programs and Ivy League graduates among the faculty, generally these schools are not the place for you. Most make every effort to keep costs low, aware that they serve the needs of parents before school prestige. You are highly likely to find teachers who graduated from faithful Newman Guide colleges and were homeschooled and classically trained.
Homeschooling: It is difficult to get exact numbers, but Catholic homeschooling seems to be growing rapidly. Whereas its growth initially was fed by the decline of American schooling and especially problems with Catholic identity in many Catholic schools, today it has much to do with the multiplication of strong, faithful curricular materials and online services that make homeschooling easier and better.
It would be a big mistake to confuse homeschooling with what many schools are doing this year because of COVID. Homeschooling is a lifestyle that prioritizes the family’s needs and the complete formation of the child: intellectual, moral and physical. It is a rare homeschooling parent that would put their child in front of a computer each day for long hours, taking direction from a teacher and supplementing class time with homework. Even online homeschool programs rely heavily on self-learning with the aid of the parent and course materials that promote observation, contemplation and confidence in knowing truth.
Hybrid options: It is becoming increasingly difficult to label programs a school or homeschool curriculum — the lines are blurring rapidly. Many homeschool programs are far more than a curriculum, providing advice, tutoring, grading and a community of faithful Catholics sharing experiences and resources. To save costs, some schools are sending students home for a couple days to engage in self-learning. Homeschoolers are developing school-like tutoring programs for a day or two each week, with tutors in classrooms and students in uniforms, engaging in dialogue and public speaking. These hybrid options enjoy benefits of both homeschooling and brick-and-mortar schools, with Christian community and shared formation.
Parents may think that homeschooling or hybrid schooling are not available options, because they usually require one parent to stay at home, but it is worth a careful review of the family’s finances. The cost is low, and a truly Catholic formation for your children, the renewal of family relationships and even the opportunity to welcome more children are enormous blessings.
The most important point is that Catholic education is a responsibility of every Catholic parent, so if there is no good option for a formally Catholic school or program, then the parent must supplement with Catholic formation — and this should not consist only of sacramental preparation and catechesis, but also integrating the truths of the Catholic faith into every area of study. If parents understand this to be essential — and if dioceses and parishes acknowledge that parochial schools serve the needs of many Catholic families, but not all — then together we might continue to develop new solutions.
I’ve worked for the renewal of faithful Catholic education for 27 years. In that time, The Cardinal Newman Society has worked to identify the key elements of Catholic education as defined by Vatican documents. We have seen the exciting growth of truly outstanding Catholic schools and colleges, such as those recognized by our Catholic Education Honor Roll and Newman Guide. My own family has experienced the great benefits of Catholic homeschooling and a classical hybrid program that my wife developed.
Catholic education is moving in the right direction, better fulfilling the needs of Catholic families who take seriously their responsibility to their children. But it’s tragic that not every family finds adequate solutions, especially as public schools flounder amid the COVID challenges. Still, Catholic families should be aware of the growing options for a strong Catholic education and strive to make it work.
This is critically important for young people, for the Church and for society. If your child is in a public school, now may be a great time to reassess your options.
This article first appeared at the National Catholic Register.