Lost Classroom, Lost Community: Catholic Schools’ Importance in Urban America, by Margaret F. Brinig and Nicole Stelle Garnett (University of Chicago Press, 224 pp., $45)

In response to widespread anti-Catholic nativism, the nineteenth-century American church established a dense network of parochial schools to serve exploding urban populations of Catholic immigrants, primarily in the Northeast and Midwest—and created a viable, high-quality alternative to the public-school system. By 1965—the height of the “golden age” of Catholic education in America—more than 5 million students, or 12 percent of all American elementary and secondary students, were enrolled in the nation’s more than 13,000 Catholic schools.

This urban Catholic world began to unravel, however, over the ensuing decades. The Second Vatican Council’s reforms prompted a dramatic shift in Catholic culture, leading many Catholic families to embrace secular education. Clergy-abuse lawsuits put enormous financial strains on Catholic dioceses across the country, forcing cutbacks and consolidations. And urban Catholic neighborhoods lost much of their ethnic character, as once-poor immigrants became middle-class, Americanized, and moved to the suburbs. Those who moved in were likely to be non-white, non-Catholic minorities. Urban parochial schools began closing at an alarming rate. According to the National Catholic Education Association, 1,856 Catholic schools either closed or were consolidated between 2004 and 2014, with urban areas the hardest hit. The number of Catholic elementary schools in the 12 largest cities has declined 29.5 percent since 2003.

In Lost Classrooms, Lost Community, Notre Dame law professors Margaret F. Brinig and Nicole Stelle Garnett explore the effects of this exodus on urban neighborhoods. Looking at school closures and beat-level policing statistics in Chicago from 1984 to 1994, Brinig and Garnett find that the shuttering of a neighborhood Catholic school is “strongly predictive” of an increase in crime and disorder (defined as drinking in public, the sale or use of drugs, and teenagers causing disturbances). That leads inexorably to diminished social capital and cohesion (defined as reciprocity and social trust). “Catholic schools,” the authors conclude, “are important, stabilizing forces in urban neighborhoods.” When they vanish, things fall apart.

Is it merely the loss of a neighborhood institution that creates the cascade of negative effects that Brinig and Garnett observe? Would a charter school, say, opening in a recently closed Catholic school building, provide similar benefits for an inner-city community? The authors hedge on this point, citing the limits of statistical analysis, but they suspect not: “Our initial analysis suggests that the charter schools that are filling the educational void left by Catholic school closures may not be, at least not yet, replicating Catholic schools’ benefits as community institutions.” Education reformers and policymakers take note: Catholic schools bring something to the table that charters don’t. The authors don’t explore what that might be—whether academic or spiritual—but it’s clear what happens when it’s taken away.

Brinig and Garnett replicated their findings in Philadelphia, which has a history of parochial education similar to Chicago’s. They were less successful in Los Angeles, for several reasons. First, as Robert Putnam, Edward Glaeser, and others have demonstrated, Los Angeles’s overall levels of social capital are lower than in other American cities, so it’s difficult to measure the effects of Catholic school closings on things like civic engagement, reciprocity, and social trust. Also, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles hasn’t actually closed many parochial schools, making Brinig and Garnett’s hypothesis difficult to test. “Most churches in Los Angeles,” they write, “were located as a result of centralized planning, rather than arising organically with immigration as they did in Chicago and Philadelphia.” It’s possible that neighborhood Catholic schools never played the same role in L.A. as they did in other cities.

The writing here is academic. Terms like “feedback effects,” “production function,” and “endogeneity” predominate, so despite its Chicago focus, Lost Classrooms, Lost Community won’t likely be an Oprah’s Book Club selection. But buried between the charts and graphs is a convincing case that flourishing inner-city Catholic schools make for flourishing inner-city neighborhoods. We’ll miss them when they’re gone.

Photo by Eric Allix Rogers/via Flickr


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