The first Catholic school in America was opened in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1606. In New Orleans, the Ursuline Academy opened in 1727 and is still operating today as the oldest Catholic school in the U.S. Other U.S. faith-based schools have roots nearly as deep. The first Jewish day school opened in New York City four decades before the American Revolution. The oldest Quaker school in the world, currently known as the William Penn Charter School, was established in Philadelphia in 1689.
But Catholic schools are the largest element in faith-based schooling today—representing about one out of every three religious schools operating in the U.S. They grew up primarily after the Civil War, as immigration from Catholic countries created demand for facilities where education could coexist with spiritual training and Catholic culture. After several efforts to secure government funding for religious education failed, the American Catholic bishops met in Baltimore in 1884 and decided that all parishes should establish schools themselves for the children of congregants. (The same council passed the resolution that led to the creation of the Catholic University of America.) Thus began many decades of grassroots philanthropy to establish, construct, and maintain parochial schools.
Financed by religious subsidies plus modest tuition payments from parents, Catholic schools exploded from only about 200 in the first half of the 1800s to 5,000 by the year 1900, and 13,500 schools educating 5.6 million children at their peak in 1965. Catholic schools have since receded to 6,600 and an enrollment of 2 million, but philanthropists are working to maintain and revive them, particularly in poor urban neighborhoods where they offer the only decent education to local children (now mostly minorities, and not Catholic).
With backing from donors, new networks, economic models, management structures, and funding methods are now being energetically experimented with, all aiming to secure Catholic education as an option for families in future generations. New York City’s Catholic schools currently receive as much in large philanthropic donations as they do in aid from the archdiocese.
- Andy Smarick and Kelly Robson, Catholic School Renaissance: A Wise Giver’s Guide to Strengthening a National Asset (The Philanthropy Roundtable, 2015)
- New York Times report on 1884 Plenary Council, query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=FA0A16FB3F5B10738DDDAE0894D9415B8484F0D3
- White House report on urban faith-based schools, www2.ed.gov/admins/comm/choice/faithbased/index.html