Loss of Catholic schools would be an 'American tragedy,' says archbishop

Kindergartners point to honeybees working in an observational hive located in the library at St. John Fisher School in Portland, Ore., in this 2018 photo. Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is calling for government aid to help Catholic schools to prevent more closings. (CNS photo/Chaz Muth) 

LOS ANGELES (CNS) -- Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles said June 16 that his recent virtual message to 2020 graduates -- posted on YouTube and shared on social media -- is "a sign of these unusual times" amid the coronavirus.

He said his prayer is that the class of 2020 "will be remembered as a heroic generation that used the gifts of a Catholic education to love and serve and build a better world at a time of national distress, when society had been turned upside down by a deadly pandemic and faced widespread uncertainty about the future."

But he is praying for something else, too, he said: "that we can act to sustain the schools they graduated from, because right now Catholic schools are facing enormous challenges."

Archbishop Gomez, who is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, made the comments in his weekly column, Voices, in Angelus News, the multimedia news platform of the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

He urged support for government aid to help to keep Catholic schools open.

Struck by the pandemic, several dioceses in the nation have announced closures at the end of the 2019-2020 academic year, according to USCCB education officials and leaders of the National Catholic Educational Association.

Students at St. Mary of the Purification Montessori School in Houston walk by a statue of St. Martin de Porres in this 2019 photo. Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is calling for government aid to help Catholic schools to prevent more closings. (CNS photo/James Ramos, Texas Catholic Herald)

"If Catholic schools are allowed to fail in large numbers, it would cost public schools about $20 billion to absorb their students, a cost already-burdened public schools should not be made to bear," Archbishop Gomez said.

"And the loss of Catholic schools would be an American tragedy. It would set back opportunities for generations of children living in low-income and inner-city neighborhoods," he added. "We cannot accept this outcome for America's children."

Before the U.S. Supreme Court's current term ends June 30, the justices are to hand down a decision on the constitutionality of excluding religious schools from a scholarship aid program, the archbishop noted.

The case is from Montana, where the state Supreme Court reversed a lower court's ruling in 2015 that it was unconstitutional to bar religious schools from a scholarship program that provided $3 million a year for tax credits for individuals and business taxpayers who donated up to $150 to the program.

The court based its decision on the state constitution's ban on spending public funds on religious education under the Blaine Amendment. Thirty-seven states have Blaine amendments, which prohibit spending public funds on religious education.

The Blaine amendments "are one consequence of this country's shameful legacy of anti-Catholic bigotry," the archbishop said.

He said Congress and the White House cannot afford to wait for the outcome of the Supreme Court decision. "They should act now to provide immediate relief to help families handle their education expenses and also to expand nationwide opportunities for poor and middle-class families."

"We should not think of this as having to choose between taxpayer-funded public schools and tuition-based independent schools. We are in this coronavirus crisis together, as one nation. Public schools and independent schools equally deserve and urgently need our government’s assistance," he continued.

Catholic schools graduate "an amazing 99% of our students," and 86% of the graduates go on to college, he pointed out.

"Catholic schools provide great economic value to our country," the archbishop added. "Per-pupil costs of public schools are about $12,000 a year. With nearly 2 million Catholic school students, that means Catholic schools are saving the nation’s taxpayers about $24 billion each year."

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles has the nation’s largest Catholic school system, he said, with 80% of the schools' 74,000 students coming from minority families, and 60% of the schools located in urban or inner-city neighborhoods. "Many of the children we serve, 17%, are not Catholics," he said.

"Our 265 schools made a remarkable transition to distance learning. Within three days, nearly all were up and running, teaching students online. Through generous support from donors, we were able to provide students with more than 20,000 iPads for home learning," Archbishop Gomez said.

Even though the schools have had to close during the pandemic lockdown, the archdiocese still has been serving poor students and their families, providing 18,000 meals every day, he said. That's "more than 500,000 and counting -- since the pandemic hit," he said.

"But we are reaching the limits of what we can do through the kindness and sacrifices of our Catholic community," Archbishop Gomez said, noting that benefactors donate to the archdiocese's Catholic Education Foundation, established in 1987. It has granted more than $200 million in scholarships to 181,000 low-income students.

"The presence of diverse educational options -- a thriving public school system along with a strong network of independent schools, including religious schools -- has always been a source of American vitality. We need to act now to ensure that educational diversity survives this pandemic," Archbishop Gomez added.