Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Case for Catholic Schools (Part Five): Preserving Urban Neighborhoods

[This is the fifth in a series of six. You may find the previous parts here.]

Most of the reasons offered for choosing Catholic schools naturally focus on the educational benefits for our children and the increased educational opportunities for other families. But Catholic schools bring benefits to the community beyond the immediate educational benefits to their own students. The health and vitality of Catholic schools is strongly correlated with the health and vitality of the neighborhoods in which they are found.

Professors Margaret Brinig and Nicole Garnett have been conducting important empirical studies on the effects of Catholic schools—and, in particular, the negative effects of the closing of Catholic schools—on neighborhoods in Chicago. As they put it, we need to come to a full “understanding of the importance of Catholic schools, not just to their students but also to their communities.”

In the first phase of their study, they found that Catholic elementary schools are “important generators of social capital in urban neighborhoods.” When a Catholic elementary school is closed, “neighborhood social cohesion decreased and disorder increased.” By social cohesion, the study means perceptions by residents of a neighborhood of whether it is close-knit, whether people can be trusted, and shared values. Social and physical disorder is measured by such things as public drinking, using or selling drugs, broken glass and windows, graffiti, and vacant houses or storefront, based upon systematic surveys of people living in Chicago neighborhoods about their perceptions of these problems over time.

A Catholic school closure in a neighborhood was statistically significant and substantially predictive of a loss in social cohesion and an increase in disorder. Professors Brining and Garnet report: “These results lead us to conclude that Catholic schools are important, stabilizing forces in urban neighborhoods: school closures lead to less socially cohesive, more disorderly neighborhoods.” Indeed, even in an era in which parish boundaries often have disappeared and Catholics leave one neighborhood to shop for parishes and Catholic schools in another neighborhood, the presence of a Catholic school in an urban neighborhood continues “to foster neighborhood social capital.”

In a second phase of the study, which remains in draft form and is not yet published, Professors Brinig and Garnett test the “broken windows” syndrome and find that Catholic school closures will lead, in relatively short order, to increased crime in a neighborhood.” Moreover, when a Catholic school closes in an area where other Catholic school closures had previously led to decreases in social cohesion and increases in social and physical disorder, the increase in crime rate after another Catholic school closure will be even more significant.

The richness of the data and the importance of the findings in the Brinig-Garnett studies cannot be fully conveyed by a short blog post. And, as something that I as an empirical researcher myself do admire, Professors Brinig and Garnett are cautious in interpreting and extrapolating from their findings and recognize the need for further study. If anything, their results are probably under-stated.  Fortunately, the data speak for themselves.

In sum, the words of former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings ring true, our Catholic schools are a “national treasure.” And they are a treasure whose keeping has been entrusted, not only but first and foremost, to Catholic parishes and families.

Greg Sisk


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Thanks for this series of posts, Greg. My wife and I are currently mulling over our options for our kids. We lean towards our parish school, primarily for the community enrichment aspects, though the public school is a very good one. Our concern with the parish school is that our kids may be better formed in the faith by being set apart. I think back to the kids I knew growing up who went to Catholic grade school; only a few are still practicing AT ALL. It seems to me that unless the families of the Catholic school kids are dedicated to steeping their kids in the faith (and not sending their kids there to shelter them, as is the case with many, it seems, at our parish), it can be a very dangerous, from a faith formation aspect. And that, at a price of more than $2K a year.

Posted by: TJ | Jul 2, 2010 6:45:12 AM