by George Weigel
It’s commencement season and tens of thousands of students are graduating from inner-city Catholic elementary schools. As decades of empirical research have shown, these kids have a better chance of successfully completing high school and college, and are better prepared to life-after-the-classroom, than their peers attending government schools. These inner-city Catholic schools are “public schools” in the best sense of the term; they’re open to the public (not just to Catholics), and they serve a genuine public interest, the empowerment of the youthful poor.
There is ample research to demonstrate inner-city Catholic schools’ educational excellence, going back to the pioneering Coleman/Greeley studies in the 1970s. Now comes an even more comprehensive claim about the positive impact of these schools: for, according to two law professors at the University of Notre Dame, Margaret F. Brinig and Nicole Stelle Garnett, inner-city Catholic schools are important factors in urban renewal as builders of “social capital” on inner-urban areas.
The research that led to Brinig and Garnett’s important new book, “Lost Classroom, Lost Community: Catholic Schools’ Importance in Urban America” (University of Chicago Press), began when one of the authors attended a 2008 meeting in Washington, D.C., at which various interested parties considered the educational impact of closing Catholic inner-city schools, a sad process that had become a national plague. It wasn’t just the loss of educational opportunity that was mourned at that meeting; people would also say, “When the (Catholic) school closes, the neighborhood just isn’t the same,” or “The whole neighborhood suffers when a (Catholic) school disappears.”
Their interest piqued, Brinig and Garnett, fellows of Notre Dame’s Institute for Educational Initiatives, decided to test that anecdotal evidence of Catholic schools’ neighborhood impact empirically. The results of their research, they concede at the outset, are both heartening and chastening:
“We concluded that Catholic elementary schools are important generators of social capital in urban neighborhoods … Catholic school closures precede elevated levels of crime and disorder and suppressed levels of social cohesion. Conversely … an open Catholic school in a neighborhood (correlates) with lower levels of serious crime … Catholic schools matter to urban neighborhoods not only as educational institutions – although, to be sure, they matter a great deal educationally – but also as community institutions.”
By “social capital,” Brinig and Garnett mean “social networks that make urban neighborhoods function more smoothly – the connections that draw residents together and enable them to suppress evils like crime and disorder.” And that “social capital” cashes out, so to speak, in many ways. It fosters good citizenship and political participation, but as the Notre Dame authors suggest, it can also be expressed in “collecting a vacationing neighbor’s mail, or calling the authorities to report suspicious activity, or picking up a discarded fast-food container from the street.” The social capital that inner-city Catholic schools help build is “spent” in living according to a sense of responsibility for the common good, not just living for immediate gratification. And that “spending” increases social-capital formation in inner-city neighborhoods.
Inner-city Catholic schools are in deep financial crisis, with strapped dioceses scrambling to find the dollars to subsidize indisputably effective schools that can no longer support themselves by themselves. Brinig and Garnett argue that, given their demonstrably positive impact across society, these schools should be given a fighting chance through mechanisms like tuition tax credits or vouchers, with public funds going to the child to enable students to attend an inner-city Catholic school. But perhaps there is another, parallel, intra-Church mechanism that could be seriously explored.
Several years ago, I suggested to a leading U.S. Catholic bishop that the Campaign for Human Development be transformed into a campaign for inner-city schools, because, as Brinig and Garnett demonstrate, these schools are the Church’s best anti-poverty and empowerment program – indeed, they may be America’s best anti-poverty program. My hunch is that the annual CHD collection would at least quadruple if CHD were retrofitted to support inner-city Catholic schools, period.
For the kids and the neighborhoods: why not?