Covid & Education: Catholic School Enrollment Increases

A student wearing a protective mask attends class on the first day of school amid the coronavirus pandemic at St. Lawrence Catholic School in North Miami Beach, Fla. August 18, 2021. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

According to the most recent annual report from the National Catholic Educational Association, enrollment in Catholic K–12 schools increased by nearly 4 percent for the 2021-2022 school year, the biggest enrollment increase the the NCEA has ever observed. It marks the first increase in Catholic-school enrollment in 20 years.

During the 2020-2021 academic year, Catholic schools reported 1.62 million students enrolled, which increased to 1.68 million this year. The 2020 numbers were a drop from the previous school years, when U.S. Catholic schools had 1.73 students enrolled.

As the Wall Street Journal editorial board noted last week, a large amount of the increase is likely attributable to the fact that Catholic schools did everything they could to remain open for in-person learning despite the Covid-19 pandemic, unlike public schools across the country. “Imagine that: Stay open to teach children, and they will come,” the editorial quipped.

The WSJ pointed out that, in the Diocese of Arlington, Va., where I live, all of the diocesan schools were open either for in-person or hybrid learning by the start of the 2020 school year and saw a 7 percent enrollment increase.

The NCEA report does attribute much of the gain to the Covid-19 pandemic, saying that about 40,000 of the new enrollments nationwide seem to have been the result of pandemic-related school closures. The boost in enrollment helped prevent the kind of decline Catholic schools have seen in recent years, as the number of schools that closed or were consolidated dropped to 71 from the previous year’s 100.

By comparison, enrollment in public schools across the country dropped by 3 percent for the 2021-2022 school years. School choice seems to be a large factor in the Catholic-school enrollment increase: About one-fifth of the nation’s Catholic schools use some form of school-choice program.

Perhaps most interesting: The NCEA report found that nearly all of the gains in enrollment came from elementary-school children. Enrollment at Catholic secondary school declined marginally, while elementary-school enrollments rose by nearly 6 percent. A huge amount of that surge came from an enormous rise in pre-school enrollments.

The WSJ editorial board surmises that some of the interest in Catholic schools might also have been the result of unpopular progressive policies in public schools:

The [NCEA] report doesn’t say this, but we wonder if the discovery by many parents of widespread and union-led political indoctrination in public schools has also helped Catholic schools. The voter recall of three San Francisco school board members this week showed that even liberals are revolting against radical progressivism in K-12 education. The solution is more education choice, whether in public charter, or secular or religious private schools.

As progressives across the country continue to insist that parents have no place in the classroom, it’s no wonder that American families are turning to schools that not only remain open but that value parental input in their children’s education. At my own Catholic middle and high school here in Virginia, one of the school’s foremost mottos was that parents are the primary educators of their children. Let’s hope the past few years have made more parents aware of and passionate about that fact.

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