Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is a strong advocate for school choice. Donald Trump pledged to create a $20 billion block grant to the states to expand charter schools and vouchers. Given the new administration’s embrace of school choice, it is important to understand who benefits from school voucher money, as well as its impact on children and the community at large. The vast majority of students who attend private schools through vouchers are enrolled at religiously affiliated institutions.
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There are about 6,500 Catholic schools in the country, educating roughly 2 million students in 2014. At their peak in 1965, parochial schools educated 5.6 million students.
In an interview, Daniel Hungerman, an economics professor at the University of Notre Dame, explained that Catholic schools have been undermined by an overall decline in Americans who are religiously affiliated in the past decade. The Catholic Church, in addition, has been rocked by the high-profile cases of child abuse by parish priests. The changing demographics of cities like Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Washington, D.C., have also had a large impact on church attendance. Hungerman and his co-authors found that the number of baptisms in Milwaukee dropped by 25 percent between 1999 and 2011.
Fewer people in the pews mean less money in the basket on Sunday, and less money for the schools; typically local parishes, not the archdiocese, support these schools. With fewer worshippers donating dollars and sending their kids in ties and kilts to St. Ann’s or Our Lady of Peace, Catholic schools have been hit hard. Charter schools have also emerged as competitors for students.
While many Catholic schools have been forced to raise tuition to pay lay teachers in the place of nuns who formerly provided that labor for free, their tuition is still remarkably modest. According to the study, the average Catholic school tuition nationwide was $4,200 during the 2007-08 school year, which is far less than the per-pupil expenditures of public schools.
Milwaukee launched its voucher initiative, Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), in 1990. The program has expanded its eligibility criteria over the years, most recently in 2013; vouchers today are restricted to families—if comprised of four people—that make $72,900 per year or less. Currently, 28,188 students take advantage of the program, attending 121 participating schools and, on average, each receiving—as of last school year—a voucher worth $7,384.In 2012, according to Hungerman, the state spent $154.6 million on vouchers for Milwaukee residents.
The clear beneficiaries of Milwaukee’s voucher program are religious schools, including parochial ones. Nearly 90 percent of the voucher recipients in Milwaukee attend a religious school, which is close to the national average; from 2007-09, 85 percent of all students attending a voucher accepting school attended a religious school. A plurality, if not a majority, of these religious schools are Catholic.