Madeleine School photo
Elizabeth Gessesse, a Madeleine sixth grader, visits residents at Spring Ridge.
Madeleine School photo
Elizabeth Gessesse, a Madeleine sixth grader, visits residents at Spring Ridge.
A recent opinion piece in the New York Times claims the future of U.S. Catholic education is grim. The writers are insightful, but ultimately nearsighted.

Unable to see clearly beyond the East and Midwest, Patrick McCloskey and Joseph Claude Harris give a skewed picture that leaves their suggested fixes in doubt.

The writers correctly report that more than a third of parochial schools in the United States closed between 1965 and 1990, and enrollment fell by more than half. But McCloskey and Harris go wrong when they cite recent school closures in places like New York and Philadelphia as evidence that the entire U.S. church must overhaul financial and personnel practices, redirecting much more money to schools.   

Haven’t the authors noticed that the reason for closures is not so much church policy as it is demographics? There are simply fewer children than in the 1960s heyday. Public schools in Portland, for example, have not had this few children since the 1920s.

What’s more, what young population we have is more centered in the West. That’s why Arizona, California and the Northwest have not seen anything like the Catholic school closures east of the Mississippi.

Even with the Catholic Church losing many Hispanics to other ecclesial communities, our Hispanic families in the west are young, vibrant and primed for Catholic school. In some parts of Portland, Catholic schools are as much as a third Hispanic.

McCloskey and Harris are right to encourage the church to maintain its commitment to educating people without much money. But they seem not to have heard of major movements already doing just that — the Nativity School network, San Miguel schools and Cristo Rey schools, all of which provide free or low-cost Catholic education. Those groups, who have institutions in Portland, are growing and spreading.

The writers seem to imply that dioceses and parishes are withholding vast amounts of cash from Catholic schools, frittering it away on things like salaries for lay ministers. In asserting that more money could simply go to schools shows a stunning lack of familiarity with diocesan and parish life.

Church entities run close to the bone and many parishes make great sacrifices to keep Catholic schools going. Catholic schools hold fundraisers month after month to fund scholarships, with parishioners stepping up as the primary buyers.  

True, a few Catholic schools in western Oregon have closed in the past decade. But it’s almost always been about lack of students, not lack of subsidy. And usually, another Catholic school is nearby. Once the sadness has passed, it’s good to have one vibrant Catholic school instead of two anemic ones.   In addition, a new parochial grade school opened in Sherwood.

McCloskey and Harris have investigated too small a sample of Catholic school life.

In the end, we should pay heed to their cautions, but discard their prescription.