We want the places we spent our childhood to stay unchanged forever. It isn’t possible, but it still makes us sad to hear about the demise of a neighborhood fixture - especially if that demise is untimely.
A few years ago, I wrote in this space about Holy Spirit Catholic School. As I noted then, Holy Spirit sits across the street from Public School 26 in the Bronx. I attended the latter and had only passing contact with the former. But looking back as an adult, I respect the education Holy Spirit offered to generations of students in the working-class neighborhood where I spent my early childhood.
In a few weeks, however, Holy Spirit’s era will come to an end. The New York Times reported recently that Holy Spirit, which has served the neighborhood for more than 80 years, will be one of 25 Catholic schools closed this year by the Archdiocese of New York.
New York is not alone. Dioceses across the country have been forced to close or consolidate schools due to financial concerns. The National Catholic Educational Association reported that 2,090 Catholic schools were either closed or consolidated between 2000 and 2013, and that enrollment fell nearly 25 percent. The exceptions to the trend are areas with growing Catholic populations or where local governments are allowed to pay for students in private schools, or with a combination of the two.
The irony is that Catholic schools are not closing due to lack of demand. According to Reuters, 32 percent of Catholic schools nationally have admissions waiting lists. But the economics of parochial schools mean that parents who might otherwise choose a Catholic school often cannot, even though tuition at a place like Holy Spirit is much lower than at nonsectarian private schools.
I have written before about the success some communities have had with voucher programs. The archdiocese of Indianapolis has seen the number of voucher students at Catholic schools more than double in the past year under that state’s newly expanded voucher system. But it is hard for such programs to get traction in places like New York City, where teachers’ unions (and organized labor in general) hold greater sway.
Last fall, unions worked to defeat a ballot measure in Florida that would have allowed public funds to be used at religious institutions, thus blocking the expansion of vouchers there. Tony Bennett, the school superintendent of Indiana and one of the driving forces behind that state’s current voucher program, was defeated in November by Democrat challenger Glenda Ritz, though the Indiana Supreme Court upheld the voucher program earlier this year.
The goal of publicly financed education should be to provide the most cost-effective education for students, not to provide the greatest number of jobs for teachers and administrators. We spend much more per student in public schools than it would cost to give parents vouchers that would pay the entire tuition at a private facility. We don’t make Medicare recipients go to publicly employed doctors. We don’t stop them from obtaining medical care at religiously affiliated hospitals. Why not offer parents of schoolchildren the same choices?
It’s a shame my old neighborhood is losing Holy Spirit. There are still many generations of ambitious young students and hopeful parents to come that the school could have served, had its doors remained open.