Catholic K–12 education is strong and can become stronger

Kathleen Porter-Magee

One reason we often overlook the American Catholic school “system” is that it isn’t much of a system at all. Rather than being led by a central authority, American Catholic schools are a great example of our country’s commitment to local civic institutions. From the dawn of Catholic education in the United States, schools were created by local communities — largely parishes, but also religious orders — for local communities. This agile, community-centered orientation contributed to the sector’s responsiveness and leadership through the Covid-era crisis.

Indeed, in March 2020, Catholic-school leaders had the autonomy and flexibility to assess the local threat and didn’t need to wait for guidance from a sprawling bureaucracy about how to act. As a result, many Catholic schools were among the first to close. Then, in fall 2020, when it had become clear that children were among those least vulnerable to the virus, and when we had more information about how to mitigate “super spreader” events, Catholic schools found a way to reopen while traditional public and charter schools stayed closed. By September 2020, 92 percent of Catholic schools had reopened for in-person or hybrid learning, compared with just 43 percent of traditional public schools and 34 percent of charter schools. These decisions were driven not by a centralized bureaucracy but rather by the community-focused leadership of principals and pastors who saw how much families needed in-person community and learning.

At the same time, the independent, autonomous spirit that allowed for such transformative leadership during Covid has allowed many Catholic schools to resist the latest curriculum fads and stand firm in favor of a rigorous classical and classically inspired education.

Indeed, it’s that principled leadership that is at the core of the most successful Catholic models. For example, the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education has sparked a renaissance in many parish schools by fostering an embrace of a classical curriculum infused with church teaching. Similarly, the network of Chesterton Academies stands as a telling counter-trend to closing schools and declining enrollment. By combining a classical curriculum with “a focus on truth, goodness, and beauty” and formation in virtues and faith, the network has grown from one school in 2008 to 27 today.

What will it take to keep this renaissance growing?