by Renée Stoeckle
When Rising Tide began discussing legislative priorities with Florida Catholic school leaders last month, the concerns were clear and consistent: we need scholarship options for middle-class families.
“I fear we’ve become a school for the haves and the have-nots,” one school leader said. “Our families are either poor enough to qualify for the (Florida Tax Credit) scholarship or wealthy enough to afford tuition. We’re losing the middle class.”
The concerns among these Florida administrators mirror those of private school leaders nationwide. Research recently published in the journal Education Next found that in the South, where private school choice programs have begun to take root, the share of both low-income and high-income families attending private schools has increased over the past 50 years. But the share of middle-income families is shrinking.
So we did some research. In our minds, we felt the growth of the nation’s largest private school choice program, and the options it afforded low-income and working-class students, would free up schools’ internal financial aid for the middle class, allowing support to be spread to more students across the school.
School choice, particularly in Florida, has had an undeniably positive effect on Catholic school enrollment. Last year alone, students attending Catholic schools received $138.9 million in school choice scholarships. Surely this “trickles down” to become assistance for the middle class, right?
Well, kind of. For starters, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship recently expanded to include partial scholarships for middle-income families, with family incomes at or below 260 percent of the federal poverty level. Last year, 7,087 of 107,095 students using the scholarships – 6.6 percent – were in those higher-income categories. So choice itself has made an effort to inch into the middle class.
But schools’ costs aren’t just inching up. They’re soaring. And, in turn, so is tuition.
When my mother attended Catholic school in the 1960s, her father, a beautician, cut and styled the nun’s hair in exchange for tuition for her and her four sisters. When I attended Catholic school in the 1990’s, my parents received a sort of buy-two-get-one-free discount, totaling about $7,000 annually for their three children. Today, the cost to attend my parochial school alma mater is more than $9,000 per child.
Catholic schools and dioceses are working diligently to provide assistance. The Catholic Foundation in the Diocese of St. Petersburg exists to do just that. Initially, the foundation created a “Bridge Scholarship” program to cover the gap between the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship amount and the cost of tuition. But as the scholarship amount has increased over the past two years, the fund has expanded to “bridge” a different gap – the gap between the cost of tuition and what middle-income families can afford to pay.
Catholic schools aren’t alone in losing the middle class. The Education Next report found that, across the board, fewer students from middle-income families are enrolling in private schools.
It’s certainly worth noting that Catholic schools in Florida are enrolling record numbers of scholars who participate in the state’s private school choice programs. While Education Next reports that, nationally, “nearly 5 percent of private school enrollment was made up of low-income students who received a school choice scholarship,” Florida’s Catholic schools boast nearly four times that, with 19 percent of students using the FTC scholarship. (For Florida private schools as a whole, FTC students now make up 33 percent of enrollment, up from 7 percent a decade ago.)
While Catholics believe priority should always be given to the students “who suffer most from educational disadvantage,” the Church also believes in universal school choice, where all families have the resources to “enjoy true liberty in their choice of schools.” More than that, the Church demands that “public subsidies are paid out in such a way that parents are truly free to choose according to their conscience the schools they want for their children.”
This raises the question: Are middle class families faced with $27,000 per year in tuition “truly free to choose”?
In preparation for this piece, I chatted with a friend from my parochial school days. She remarked on how backwards the business model was for our school in the 1990’s – with 35 students in a class and a waitlist for nearly every grade, why wasn’t the school charging top dollar for tuition? The answer is simple: Catholic schools were designed to be accessible to everyone who desired an education in the faith. That’s why my grandfather bypassed tuition with haircuts and perms, and why my parents were given such a remarkable discount to keep their children together in Catholic school.
When the cost to educate was minimal, Catholic schools could live out their mission by providing high-quality education to families for a reasonable amount, often with an individualized tuition agreement for each family.
The mission of Catholic schools hasn’t changed, but the cost has. As a result, an education in a faith-based school is increasingly becoming a luxury reserved for the wealthy. If those of us who believe in Catholic education want to offer it to everyone, we need to come together and demand greater access to school choice opportunities.