With the COVID-19 pandemic sapping disposable income for many low- to moderate income families, the superintendent of Catholic schools in the Boston area said Tuesday that private religious education could be on the verge of the biggest collapse in recent memory, and he said it's on Congress to fix it.
Thomas Carroll, the superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Boston, said any new stimulus package out of Washington must include money for private and parochial schools, not just public school districts struggling financially during the pandemic.
The $3 trillion CARES Act did provide for an equitable distribution of funds to non-public education institutions, but the more recent proposal from House Democrats for another relief bill reportedly gets rid of that provision, according to education advocates.
Carroll said the Boston archdiocese has already announced the closure of 10% of its schools, and the number of schools that won't be reopening to students in the fall could grow. He said it's not for lack of interest, but the lack of ability for families to pay the tuition as they have lost their jobs and income due to government's decision to shut down much of the economy.
"They caused the problem. We didn't shut down the economy. They did," Carroll said during a Zoom discussion hosted by the Center for Education Reform.
The event brought Carroll and Paul Escala, the superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, together to discuss the future of Catholic education after the pandemic.
"I believe we're going to have the largest number of Catholic school closures around the country in anyone's recent memory," Carroll said.
Though Carroll said he's not involved in politics, he blamed government for "causing the collapse of Catholic schools" and said "it's on them when they do the next relief package" to direct money to families that want to send their children to have a Catholic education.
"I think they need to make these people whole," he said, suggesting a scholarship program to be administered by governors for families who have lost their ability to pay tuition.
He also cast the question as a starkly political one for members of Congress from both parties who are in an election year.
"You have to be mindful of the Catholic vote, the Jewish vote and the Evangelical vote. It's just a plain fact," Carroll said. He called on Congress to set aside 10% of any education funding for non-public schools, based on the proportion of students educated at private, parochial and charter schools schools.
"Both parties have an interest. It could be the key swing vote in this election and they ought to pay attention," he said.
Declines in enrollment have caused a number of Catholic schools to close in Massachusetts during the pandemic.
The number of students enrolled at St. Jerome School in North Weymouth dropped to 158 this year from 210 a decade ago and the archdiocese estimated that enrollment would continue to slide to about 110 next year. At that level, Carroll said the archdiocese made the decision to close the school.
"The latest drop is no doubt a direct result of the pandemic, which has caused high unemployment that has not been seen in this area and the country since the Great Depression," Carroll wrote in a recent message to the St. Jerome School community, announcing the school's closure.
Carroll reached out to individuals and foundations in an effort to save St. Jerome, but he said philanthropy has also dried up.
"This is understandable as their resources are being stretched thin as the needs in the greater Boston area outstrip the help that can be provided," he wrote.
The St. Louis School in Lowell also announced last month that it would be closing after more than 110 years of educating children in that mill city, while the Sacred Heart School in Weymouth Landing and St. Francis Xavier School in South Weymouth worked out a merger to maximize facilities and resources.
Schools in Marlborough, Fall River, Taunton and Buzzards Bay have also closed, according to reports.
"We have a lot of schools that simply don't have enough money to pay their teachers for a full school year," said Carroll, suggesting it would be "amoral" to start a new school year not knowing if a school could pay the faculty for the entire year.
The Archdiocese of Boston controls 112 schools serving 30,000 students.