WSJ: Vouchers breathe new life into Catholic schools

How’s this for a little good news:

Chicago Catholic elementary schools saw enrollment increase 3% this year and 1% last year—the first two-year growth spurt since 1965. Greater Boston elementary schools had a 2% bump—the first in 20 years. And Los Angeles, Indianapolis and Bridgeport, Conn., also added desks for the first time in years.

Nationally since 2000, U.S. Catholic school enrollment has plummeted by 23%, and 1,900 schools have closed, driven by demographic changes and fallout from priest sexual-abuse scandals. Newark, N.J., and Philadelphia have announced plans to close even more Catholic schools.

But lately, Catholic schools have slowed their overall rate of decline. This year, two million children attended Catholic schools, down 1.7% from last, but less than the average yearly decline of 2.5% over the past decade.

The improving prospects for Catholic schools in some cities come at a time of great ferment in U.S. education. Years of overhauls in public schools have yielded only modest progress. And attendance at independent private schools fell during the recession.

Students at Catholic schools generally boast better test scores and graduation rates than public schools. But families, including those who aren’t Catholic, must be willing to accept weekly Mass and religion classes in many schools.

Catholic schools are showing signs of growth even in cities without vouchers. But they are benefiting disproportionately from the rise of vouchers, available in 10 states and Washington, D.C., and tax credit programs that provide tax relief to individuals or businesses that donate to scholarships for low-income students.

Private schools usually are more expensive and often don’t participate in voucher programs. Catholic schools are frequently located in urban areas, where vouchers are popular, have space and have an established history with communities.

As more states embrace them—Virginia, Florida and Louisiana created or expanded voucher or tax credit programs in the last 18 months—many Catholic schools expect enrollment gains.

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