Catholic educators greeted a grim reality Tuesday at the start of their annual convention in St. Louis: they face a Catholic school enrollment that has shrunk 19 percent in a decade.
The National Catholic Educational Association convention, the largest private education gathering in the country, drew almost 8,000 attendees in St. Louis this week.
At a panel discussion on the state of Catholic education Tuesday morning, officials detailed statistics that illustrate the scale of the steep nationwide Catholic school enrollment loss.
Today, about 6,400 Catholic schools educate 1.9 million students. That's down by more than 441,000 students, or 19 percent, since 2007. Meanwhile, 19 percent of Catholic schools have closed or consolidated.
Dale McDonald, the association's director of public policy and educational research, said that's largely due to higher tuition costs, which have risen more than 40 percent since 2007.
McDonald also hinted at the association's hope that Washington will soon develop school-choice programs that will aid Catholic schools. President Donald Trump has said he wants to spend $20 billion on school choice, but did not indicate what that will look like.
"We are hopeful, we are optimistic that there will be some program that will provide our parents with their fair share of the tax dollar," McDonald said.
Thomas Burnford, president and CEO of the National Catholic Educational Association, also emphasized good news about Catholic schools. Catholic schools have a 99 percent high school graduation rate, compared to 82 percent for public schools. About 85 percent of Catholic high school graduates attend four-year colleges, compared to 44 percent of public school students.
The convention comes the same week that the Archdiocese of St. Louis announced it will distribute $780,000 in innovation grants to fund 18 projects benefiting 47 schools and parish school of religion programs. The archdiocese has been infusing private money into its Catholic schools as a way to shore up enrollment declines.
Those innovation grants are in addition to $1.8 million in scholarships awarded to about 1,110 students for this school year as part of the archdiocese's Beyond Sunday campaign. The $100 million campaign is funded by individual parishes.
This week's convention marks a homecoming for the archdiocese, which hosted the first National Catholic Educational Association convention 103 years ago at what used to be St. Louis University's location downtown.