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Catholic schools are at risk and so are the students

Catholic schools are at risk and so are the students
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It was an unusual call, but, then, these are unusual times. President TrumpDonald John TrumpMinnesota certifies Biden victory Trump tells allies he plans to pardon Michael Flynn: report Republican John James concedes in Michigan Senate race MORE met recently — virtually, of course — with top leaders of the Catholic Church in the United States to discuss the survival of Catholic schools. Catholic schools make up the largest system of private schools in this country and they are facing massive closures due to the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. I had the privilege of being a fly on the wall during that conversation and can report that the discussion acknowledged some good news, but also pointed to a pressing need. And a way to meet that pressing need.

First, much appreciation was expressed for the Trump administration’s inclusion of faith-based institutions in the CARES Act’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). This has allowed many Catholic schools to keep its teachers, bus-drivers, and other staff on the payroll (for now). This was a huge victory for people of all faiths — to be treated as equal partners in America’s public square, as the Supreme Court affirmed is proper in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer. When it came to the PPP, the Trump administration made clear that we’re all in this together. 

While the PPP helped schools survive in the short-term, many will soon again be on the brink of closure, and the cardinals on the phone call were sounding the alarm bells. The most vulnerable Catholic schools are those in urban areas that serve the most vulnerable children. Public schools in these neighborhoods will chug along with government support. Catholic schools, however, rely on the charitable support of the community and the ability of parents to be able to scrape together the tuition. They’re at risk. So are their students.

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Why should the president — or other non-Catholics for that matter — care about the fate of Catholic schools? The answer to this question clearly caught President Trump’s attention on the call: Catholic schools save the taxpayers $24 billion a year. Yes, $24 billion.

The math is simple. The average per-pupil cost of a public-school education is about $12,000 annually. (The average per-pupil cost at Catholic schools is $5,847). Two million children educated in Catholic schools, two million children the public does not pay to educate. That’s a whopping $24 billion savings every year for taxpayers.

More importantly, the students at these less costly schools perform far better than their public-school counterparts. While many Catholic schools serve underprivileged areas with failing public schools, they have a staggering 99 percent graduation rate and 86 percent of their graduates go to college. A full 20 percent are minority students, and almost 20 percent are not even Catholic. 

But the faith component is key to this successful model. A recent Harvard study showed kids who are raised with faith are happier and healthier, with lower rates of depression, drug and alcohol abuse. Catholic schools include a dose of character education — and an even stronger dose of love. Children are better able to thrive and reach their potential with this wind in their sails.

One former Catholic schoolgirl at Blessed Sacrament in the Bronx, Justice Sonia SotomayorSonia SotomayorWill the Supreme Court take ObamaCare off life-support? Supreme Court grapples over Catholic organization's fight against nondiscrimination law Girl Scouts spark backlash from left after congratulating Justice Amy Coney Barrett MORE of the Supreme Court, has offered strong testimony about the importance of these schools. As she told the New York Times, “You know how important those eight years were? ….what it means for all our families, like my mother, who were dirt-poor. She watched what happened to my cousins in public school and worried if we went there, we might not get out. So she scrimped and saved. It was a road of opportunity for kids with no other alternative.” Justice Sotomayor’s experience is not unique.

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On the call, President Trump seemed genuinely impressed with the Catholic school model and bowled over by the $24-billion figure. He returned to the impressive statistics at the end of the conference call: Better outcomes for children at half the cost! And tremendous taxpayer savings to boot. A pretty good deal.

The CARES Act has certainly provided short-term help, but more is needed in the wake of the virus’s economic devastation. The Administration has proposed “The Education Freedom Scholarship” tax-credit program to help parents like Justice Sotomayor’s mother have a choice in the education of her child. This would be a lifeline to families who cannot otherwise afford to pay tuition and at a savings to taxpayers. Squandering this opportunity would be a tragedy for the future Sonias out there. 

Maureen Ferguson is a senior fellow for The Catholic Association.