Since their founding in the 19th Century, Catholic schools have been noted for serving economically disadvantaged and ethnic minority communities. Education choice programs, due to their income-based and geographic eligibility requirements, tend to serve these same populations. Many therefore assume that choice programs send a disproportionate share of participating students to Catholic schools. On the positive side, well-meaning Catholic school leaders may claim this as a badge of honor. However, the perception that financially strapped Catholic schools are “propped up” by public funding could be harmful to the education choice movement.
Catholic Education Partners tested this assumption by retrieving state government, diocesan, Catholic conference, and scholarship organization data for 28 programs across 20 states. These 16 scholarship tax credit and 12 voucher programs accounted for $1.8 billion of the $2.2 billion (81%) allocated for private school choice nationwide and 358,000 of the 466,000 (77%) participating students.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, Catholic schools do not dominate choice programs, but rather enroll students in line with their share of the overall private school market.
Financially, based on average scholarship and voucher amounts in each , Catholic schools would be expected to receive about $587 million in program funding. However, in programs where precise figures were available, scholarships used to enroll in Catholic schools were shown to be about 21 percent less than the program-wide average. This deflator reduces our estimate of program funding to Catholic schools to $538 million.
In part this reflects the fact that voucher programs provide nearly $5,000 more per-pupil on average over tax credit scholarships ($7,331 vs $2,504). Voucher funds account for 65 percent of total Catholic school revenue from choice students, with three large programs (Indiana, Ohio’s statewide, and Milwaukee) accounting for two-thirds of Catholic school voucher revenue.
Putting the overall funding estimate of $538 million in context, if these 113,000 Catholic school students were receiving a scholarship equal to the average per-pupil spending in public schools nationwide ($11,762), spending on them would more than double to about $1.3 billion. By this estimate, Catholic schools are saving governments half the cost of educating a student. In one dramatic example, Maryland spends on average $14,206 per student, but the average Catholic school voucher student only receives $2,519. Of course, some students using voucher programs may have attended private schools even if this subsidy were not available. Even so, the size of the difference suggests that these programs are a discount for state governments.
In studying enrollment numbers, we found that on average Catholic schools enroll program students at the same rate as they enroll students paying out-of-pocket and that choice program students account for less than one quarter of Catholic school students overall.
For instance, in Ohio, 63 percent of choice program students choose a Catholic school. While that seems high, Catholic schools enroll at least 57 percent of private school students in the Buckeye state. Voucher students account for only 24 percent of Catholic school students throughout the state.
Overall, Catholic schools overperform in enrolling voucher students—capturing 50 percent of all participating students while having only 42 percent market share in voucher states. Two standouts are Ohio’s Educational Choice (67 percent of participants vs 57 percent market share) and Indiana’s Choice Scholarship (54 percent of participants vs. 37 percent market share). In tax credit scholarship programs, students choose Catholic schools slightly more than expected, outpacing their market share by 3 percent.
Putting these enrollment numbers in context, no more than 25 percent of students in Catholic schools receive support from a voucher or tax credit scholarship. This figure varies from state to state. On the high end, 85 percent of students in Catholic schools in Arizona receive support from one or more of three available tax credit scholarships (average combined support: $3,335). On the lower end, the 263 students on scholarship at Catholic schools in Kansas represent only 1 percent of Catholic school students statewide.
The bottom line is that, far from propping up systems of Catholic schools, education choice programs work as intended to supplement parents in affording a school of choice. Catholic schools are not receiving a financial windfall from these programs, and choice program parents tend to choose Catholic schools only slightly more often than parents paying out-of-pocket.
The lesson for policymakers is that including Catholic school leaders in designing choice programs is important, as they may serve about a third of all participating students. However, opponents and advocates of choice alike need not fear that a new program will simply become a subsidy to Catholic schools. In fact, it is likely the opposite. Catholic schools and their supporting communities will end up subsidizing the education of participating students, reducing the government’s cost to educate and freeing up resources for school districts.
An interactive display of this data and further charts are available at https://catholicedpartners.org/catholic-choice-survey
— Greg Dolan
Greg Dolan is Director of Policy and Outreach at Catholic Education Partners.