Declining Enrollment and Lack of Funding Force More Catholic School Closures in Italy, U.S.

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By Melissa Butz

Permanently empty classrooms are the new reality for at least 98 Catholic schools in the United States, closing because of coronavirus. A decline in enrollment is to blame. 

With the COVID-19 pandemic still spreading in the U.S., the number of students who can no longer afford a Catholic education could rise. The outbreak has destroyed millions of American jobs. In many cases, parents can’t pay their kids’ tuition, which averages about $5,000 for elementary schools and $12,000 for secondary education.

The National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) is warning that without help from the government, the challenges facing Catholic education will get worse.

“Many middle income families are no longer able to afford the tuition,” said Dale McDonald, educational research director at NCEA. “In the United States, there is no government assistance for operating religious and private schools. Education dollars, supported by the public, go only to public schools.”

While Catholic schools are facing big challenges across the U.S., here in Italy there’s also trouble. 

Father Jesus Parreno, the director of Highlands Institute, a Catholic school in Rome, says so far this year, 66 Italian Catholic schools have closed.

“It’s a very delicate situation for schools that want to stay open and don’t want to close,” said Fr. Parreno. “We would like to give more economic support to families, but it’s just not possible.”

He recalled that throughout history, Catholics have provided an education full of rigor, diversity, service programs, sports and most of all faith. 

As a priest and private school director, Fr. Parreno said Catholic school closures and a resulting lack in faith formation could have lasting negative effects for upcoming generations and the Church at large.

In the U.S., for the past 10 years, enrollment has decreased by 18 percent in private schools just like the Catholic school in Rome. In fact, more than 1,100 of these schools had to either close or combine with other ones. Only 244 new private schools were created in that time.