In 1925, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that cemented the country’s thinking on school choice: Families, the justices concluded in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, had the right to decide where to send their children to school and thus could choose private education. Catholic schools, which were the target of the lawsuit, rejoiced. They could continue serving as an alternative to the United States’ system of “common schools.”
The Catholic Church went on to dominate America’s private-school world for several decades. But starting in the 1970s that dominance started to fade—and by the late 1990s, it was clear that the country was witnessing parochial education’s demise. Today, the number of students who attend Catholic schools (roughly 1.8 million children) is fewer than half of what it was half a century ago, according to an analysis of federal data published in the latest issue of Education Next. The National Catholic Education Association says that more than 100 Catholic schools were consolidated or closed altogether during the 2017–18 year alone.
This trend isn’t just a source of concern for the Catholic community. It’s also troubling to those worried about growing inequality and income segregation in the education system as a whole. As the new Education Next report concludes, the demise of Catholic education correlates with a decline in the share of middle-class students attending independent schools. The authors—including Richard Murnane, a Harvard education and economics professor, and Sean Reardon, a Stanford expert on educational inequality—write that this exacerbates a system in which private education is largely reserved for the wealthy and for the few low-income children who are eligible for and manage to secure vouchers or financial aid.