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Research Shows Virtually No Middle-Class Parents Can Afford Private Schools

It turns out that Catholic schools existed for a reason.

According to a new study from Education Next, private schools have become more inaccessible to middle-class families than ever. And the reason is simple: Catholic schools, which traditionally have been on the cheaper side of the private education system, are disappearing. It’s leaving working- and middle-class families, those who can’t afford skyrocketing private-school tuition, with far fewer options.

Catholic schools, in particular, parochial Catholic schools that were an extension of a local parish and subsidized for parishioners, were created for middle and working-class kids. (Independent private Catholic schools with no parish affiliation also exist, but are traditionally more expensive.) They boomed after World War II and at one point, according to the study, almost 90 percent of kids who attended private elementary school were enrolled in a Catholic school. (Today, only about 40 percent of kids in private schools are in Catholic-affiliated schools.) As affordable parochial Catholic schools disappear, however, the gap has been filled by more expensive, secular private schools.

There are a few reasons why affordable Catholic schools began to decline. And it starts with the white flight of the 1960s. During that time, middle- and working-class white Americans, many of whom were Catholics of Irish or Italian descent,  disappeared from big cities. As a result, the dependable pool of Catholic school students disappeared as well. The secularization of America also began to take hold. Fewer Americans attended church regularly, and fewer wanted to funnel their kids into religiously affiliated education systems. This coincided with sexual abuse scandals within the church. As churches had to pay large settlements to victims, dioceses went broke and their schools shuttered.

Not only that, but with fewer full-tuition-paying students funding the schools, fewer low-income and middle-class kids could attend using parish scholarships. More Catholic schools closed. And as a result, what schools did remain increased their tuition to make up for the lack of church subsidies — and that increase in tuition was not inconsiderate. From the years 1970 to 2010, on average, Catholic schools tuition increased from around $850 to nearly $6,000. So, in other words, they became unaffordable to working-class families. And as Catholic schools declined in general, as they became more expensive, other expensive private preparatory schools filled the gap.

What follows was obvious: most people who continued to attend Catholic private schools had the money to do so. Meaning, of course, that most people in Catholic private schools today are upper class. In 1968, almost 20 percent of elementary-school-aged children who were in high-income families went to private school. Middle-class students were right behind them with 12 percent enrollment. But today, only half of that percentage of middle-income families are enrolled in private school, although enrollment of upper-class students has stayed consistent. In other words, middle-class families took the brunt of increasingly unaffordable private schools, and private schools have become a playground for the wealthy.