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Can Superman Rescue Parochial Schools?

For more than 80 years, the Holy Spirit Catholic School in the Bronx has stood across the street from Public School 26.

I attended P.S. 26 in the 1960s, but for me, Holy Spirit might as well have been on Mars. I never set foot in the place. I only knew a few Holy Spirit students, and they all happened to be girls. They were older than me and were the sort of older girls who thought little boys required scientific study, like bacteria or bugs. I kept my distance.

Otherwise, the only time my world intersected that of Holy Spirit was at 2 p.m. every Wednesday. At that hour, most of the Catholic kids in my class were escorted across the street to Holy Spirit for religious instruction. I didn't really know what religious instruction meant. It certainly didn't dawn on me that the five hours a week I spent after school at the Hebrew Institute of University Heights was a form of religious instruction. I did know, however, that the women who taught my classes at the Hebrew Institute of University Heights were far, far scarier than the Holy Spirit girls. Abraham and Moses in person would have been less intimidating.

Looking back, I regret never getting to know more of the people who occupied Holy Spirit. It's not that I wish I had attended Catholic school — I don't — but I have come to respect the very serviceable education Catholic schools have delivered to students in places like the Bronx, where public schools have failed far too many children for far too long.

Now, however, it’s unclear how many Catholic schools will be able to afford to keep their doors open to the next generation of students. Catholic schools across the country have been forced to close due to declining enrollment and lack of funds. So many have been shuttered in recent years that church leaders have started referring to the closing of schools as “the melancholy rite,” The New York Times reports.

New York’s archbishop, Timothy M. Dolan, has indicated that he may resort to dramatic restructuring to save the schools of his archdiocese, which includes the New York City boroughs of Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island, in addition to seven other counties in the state. Under Dolan’s plan, funding for the schools would be centralized, instead of leaving each parish to support its own school. The archbishop would strategically eliminate numerous schools in order to ensure the survival of the remaining ones. “We must admit that the days of expecting a parish by itself to support its school are coming to an end,” Dolan wrote in the archdiocesan newspaper, Catholic New York.

As Catholic schools close, families are left with less choice as to where to send their children. Nonsectarian private schools in New York City charge upwards of $30,000 per year per child, an impossible sum for working-class parents. Even Holy Spirit's current tuition of just under $4,000 for a single student (siblings get discounts) is a major burden for the families that live in my old neighborhood. When schools like Holy Spirit go away, public schools — and, in lucky districts, alternative charter schools — become the only options.

The desperation of many public school students and their families is portrayed in the film “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” which opened in limited release this weekend. Directed and co-written by Davis Guggenheim, whose credits include an Academy Award for “An Inconvenient Truth,” the film depicts the efforts of five inner-city youngsters to beat the educational odds that are stacked against them.

Which gets me to a simple question: Are we spending enormous amounts of public money on education so we can have public schools, or so we can get children educated by any means necessary?

Cost-effective parochial schools are closing by the hundreds for lack of enough tuition-paying students, while we spend far more than those schools’ tuition to keep students in public schools that don’t work. This is fiscal and educational malpractice.

We could go a long way toward solving our inner-city education problem by providing publicly financed vouchers that those students could use to pay tuition at any school that meets state educational standards, including parochial schools.

In the 2008 fiscal year, New York City reported spending $17,696 per student in its public schools, according to a study by the Cato Institute. The Institute estimates that actual per student spending in New York City that year may have been more like $21,543. For the cost of educating one student in the public school system, the city could have paid tuition for four or five students at Holy Spirit.

The added enrollment that vouchers would provide could make an enormous difference to those schools. In the Archdiocese of New York, for example, Latinos make up a small percentage of parochial school students, although nearly half of the Catholics in the archdiocese are Hispanic. Dolan attributes this discrepancy to the difficulty many families have paying tuition ranging from about $3,000 to $6,000 a year. Providing these students with the opportunity to attend Catholic schools, should they choose to do so, could significantly bolster enrollment.

Many opponents of school vouchers argue that the First Amendment makes it impossible for taxpayers’ money to be used to pay religious institutions to instruct children. It is, of course, true that public treasuries cannot pay for the religious portion of the program, but this need not prevent governments from paying for the other elements of students’ education.

At the college level, all sorts of government programs already help students pay tuition at religiously affiliated institutions. We have no qualms about allowing government-financed programs like Medicare and Medicaid to pay for treatment at hospitals operated by religious groups. For that matter, we provide exemptions from federal and state income taxes, and from local property taxes, for churches, synagogues, mosques and temples, as well as the schools they operate. Using vouchers at parochial schools would probably pass constitutional muster as long as the public funds are not used for instruction or other activities that are explicitly and primarily religious. The fact that parents could use vouchers for schools affiliated with any sect, or with no sect, is probably enough to make them legally sound as well as practical. I’m sure we can handle the bookkeeping.

Vouchers are not going to solve all our education problems, and parochial schools are not the answer for every child. We are going to have to put a lot of diverse pieces together to solve our educational policy puzzle. Each time a school like Holy Spirit closes, we lose one of those pieces.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s most recent book, The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Anyone Can Achieve Wealth,” and Chapter 19, “Assisting Aging Parents.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s previous book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55.

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