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The Tuition Is Too Damn High

Should the Church make Catholic education affordable for all families? Every Catholic parent has to consider how to educate his or her children. Usually this consideration boils down to a simple binary of whether to send her child to Catholic school or to public school.

My wife and I, both of whom have attended and worked at Catholic schools, almost instinctively want our two-year old daughter to have a Catholic education. It seems odd to think that a Catholic school would make a difference for her—after all, she doesn’t know the alphabet, let alone the Catechism—but we know an education that considers the well-being of the whole human person and introduces truth, goodness, and beauty at an early age—along with the great spiritual and sacramental gifts of the Church—will help form her for life.

The decision isn’t easy for many parents because the local church has done little in the last several decades to form the parental understanding on the need for Catholic education. If you are lucky, your priest might remind you in a homily about the importance of forming your children’s Catholic conscience and of raising them to be faithful Catholics. Few priests will argue that this kind of formation requires a Catholic education. Many parents thus assume that going to Mass and CCD is enough.

Catholic teaching might state that the parents are the primary educators of their children (the phrase is taken from the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on Christian education, Gravissimum educationis), but the majority of parents decide to outsource their child’s education to the local school board or the diocese, two entities guided largely by prevailing cultural norms or bureaucratic efficiencies. More often than not, parents are not equipped to understand curriculums and school culture. The Church responds primarily by doubling-down on her simple request: place your child with us and we will take care of his or her education.

That trust is misplaced. Not lost amidst the Archbishop of San Francisco’s attempts to ensure fidelity to the magisterium among his teachers is the reality that his action is a last-ditch salutary effort. The majority of his teachers and his administrators openly reject Catholic doctrine, embracing syncretism with the culture rather than the Catholic heart and mind. This group of educators is hardly the canary in the coal mine. The canary died several generations ago. Indeed, we’re now several generations into adult lapsed Catholics misanthropically boasting about their Catholic education.

Of course, we all know many great (and usually expensive!) Catholic schools. The landscape is not so bleak that I cannot fondly and proudly look back at the parochial middle school and private high school I attended, as well as a Catholic graduate school. My teachers were not just competent and orthodox, but lived the faith in the frailty of their lives (that is, they were no holy rollers).

Still, my own education was a mix. I attended the local public elementary school and attended public university for undergraduate and law. The Catholic options were not available at a price point that I could reasonably afford. Had I attended one of the more prominent Catholic law schools in the country, I would have graduated with a six-figure debt. That debt may have had a significant impact on my own discerning of my vocation to marriage. It would have been hard to ask my now-wife to help me pay off my significant debt—essentially making it our debt—and starting our family.

Unfortunately, now that my first little one is ready to head off to preschool, I am realizing that the Catholic schools I attended and the ones to which I would want to send my children are decidedly outside the affordable price range for just one child. A Catholic primary and secondary school education (let alone a college education) is simply out of the price range for median income families in my local area. This says nothing of the fact that faithful Catholic families are “fruitful and multiply” and with those joys come too the expenses. Especially in a well-to-do metropolitan area, many Catholic private schools compete directly with their secular private counterparts for the upper-middle-class, well-to-do dollar, pricing out the local family or children of alumni.

Education is a hard business. It does not help that public-funded schools essentially outclass Catholic schools in academics. Who always has the better science lab, for example? There is a perception that a well-off public school prepares a child for the world much better than the Catholic school does . The segmentation and benefits that the alumni of elite universities provide one another seems to trickle down to well-off (or at least, not bad) public schools. Many high schools create a strong cultural and communal tie to their neighborhoods, which often last a lifetime.

The discussion that Pope Francis has encouraged of the Church’s response to poverty and human need has not affected how we talk about our Catholic schools. The Church seems unable to sustainably fund Catholic education and make it accessible to everyone. If the education of Catholic children is as important as Catholic teaching says it is, the question of funding can’t be left to struggling parishes and sacrificing families.

In the longer term, the Church should ask not only how to fund her schools but whether the need for such an education might be provided by other forms. Catholic education might not necessarily mean “Catholic branding” or at worst “normal education sprinkled with the Catechism.” The rise of the classical school movement (and even some classical charter public schools, like the Great Hearts system in Arizona), raises the serious question as to whether “Catholic branding” in the 9 to 3 schooling environment is a sine non qua for a Catholic education.

If the intellect and moral imagination is being formed by the virtuous past of human tradition, there is no tension between faith and education. Can we consider pedagogies and approaches that are not strictly “Catholic” as still being formed by the Catholic heart, mind, and imagination? The recent recovery of Montessori education as a Catholic education seems to point to the answer being yes.


Readers are invited to discuss essays in argumentative and fraternal charity, and are asked to help build up the community of thought and pursuit of truth that Ethika Politika strives to accomplish, which includes correction when necessary. The editors reserve the right to remove comments that do not meet these criteria and/or do not pertain to the subject of the essay.

  • Santiago


    • Julie O’Connell Bristol

      First, I’d like to give a nod to Cristo Rey’s national network of schools that are addressing this issue–at least at the high school level–for students from families of very limited means. That, unfortunately, leaves out many of us, but is worthy of mention nonetheless. Some in this thread might consider these schools nominally Catholic only, however, you can be assured that graduates are fully aware and appreciative of the fact that it is a Catholic institution attempting to release them from the grip of poverty.
      Second, to suggest that home schooling is the blanket answer to this pressing problem is ridiculous. This solution assumes all families are two-parent, that one parent earns enough to support the family, that the stay-at-home parent is an educator, that socialization with children who believe differently isn’t necessary or even valuable, that female children, primarily, should only be trained to run a household and raise/educate children…the list goes on and on.
      Third, the refusal of the Church in America to acknowledge this crisis will spell its doom. Every time a Catholic school closes, an entire parish’s (and sometimes region’s) Catholic population is threatened. Catholic education should be priority number one from the Vatican on down; otherwise, Catholicism will vanish right along with endangered species and coastlines.

  • NDaniels

    Catholic Education has played a major role in the education of the public throughout this Nation. There is nothing in our Catholic Faith that precludes us from being good citizens, in fact, one could argue that today, Catholic Education is more consistent with our founding Judeo-Christian principles than a secular education, which is more consistent with atheistic materialism. It is unjust discrimination to withhold public funding from members of the public without just cause.

    By secular I mean this definition:

    • CJ Wolfe

      Yes- bring on the vouchers! They are 100% Constitutional; you can be sure that George Washington would have argued for them

      • Anni

        Careful with the vouchers! One of the issues in Canada is the fact that because public dollars are used to fund Catholic schools, the govt feels a right to interfere in the operations and curriculum of that school. Witness the current debate in Ontario over sex Ed curricula that the provincial govt is trying to ram through… The use of vouchers represents one such window of opportunity. Perhaps tax breaks/credits to families who pay tuition instead?

    • Gus

      According to U.S. Commission on Civil Rights there is no discrimination. See this article —

      Many state constitutions have Blaine Amendments that prohibit state funds going to faith-based schools. The only way to change this is to amend the state constitutions.

  • Dennis Larkin

    Catholic parents who send their children to government schools beggar their Catholic school fellows. Your parents drove up the tax cost for Catholic school families. I suspect your parents were not grateful for the subsidy they received in your education; they perhaps thought, “I pay for this with my taxes.”
    The great enemies of Catholic schools are government school Catholics. They drive up costs for government schools and they keep their foot on the necks of Catholic school families.
    The Church should challenge government school Catholics to recognize the injustice of their tax demands on Catholic school families. We had a tremendous row about this thirty years ago in our parish, there was a division of the parish into two camps, and when a handful of Catholic school patrons withdrew their parish contributions, parish revenue dropped by 36% and stayed there for more than 5 years. Freeloading government school families thought everyone else was a freeloader as well. The bishop reassigned the priest who had led the attack on Catholic schools. Governement school Catholics were stunned to find that Catholic school familles were tithing and paying more than their share of parish support.
    The problem with the cost of Cathollic schools is the extortionary tax demands made upon Catholic school families by government school Catholics. Put another say, five thousand dollars a year in the pockets of parents who patronize Catholic schools, and the costs are affordable.
    Your solutions are a bargain with the devil, a way to gut the core of Caholic school mission. This nation will not be evangelized by shuttering Catholic schools and sending children to the local atheist schools.

  • Thomas Storck

    When my wife was growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1950s, her working-class parish grade school was entirely free of charge for parishioners’ children. And as a result, her pastor could honestly and consistently tell his flock that they had a duty to send their children to Catholic schools. No one could plead that it was too expensive. And at the time, the school upheld the Faith very well.

    • On the one hand this is easy to dismiss (right…) because the religious aren’t there for this (or so says the argument). On the other hand, it doesn’t seem to be a priority for the Church in general. That I would assume is your point (more than the practical barriers.)

      • Thomas Storck

        Well, in part I was just being nostalgic. But you’re right, it hasn’t been a priority, and there’s been little creative thinking about how to address the need given the lack of consecrated religious. E.g., the parish school that our 4 children attended closed because of low enrollment, and as far as I know there was no thought given to alternatives, such as a parent-run school with parents volunteering, sort of an extended home school.

        • Eileen

          Thomas Stork has hit on something here – I have designed and implemented curriculum for grades K-8 in our parochial school, I have taught myself rudimentary web design on YouTube and redesigned a school website, I have catalogued library books, written the thank you notes for fundraising efforts, attended meetings at the parish through diocesan level to help our school. I say this not to toot my own horn, but to show that a coop model is what is helping on two fronts: 1) Parents pitching in at a sacrificial level helps keep administrative and staff costs low; and 2) parental contributions improve teacher morale and retention by promoting a community within the school. Some families are truly unable to contribute much, but many are – I am mother to 5,3,1 year olds and have a doctorate in European history…not quite fundraising, budgets and web design expertise.

  • You seem to have the answer Mr. Caro– it is now a crazy-quilt of possibilities, but you are limited to the schools in your area. Each is as unique as the human person, and high cost does not equal better.

    In most areas I think that the Church has been driven to advantage of the charter mandate and the DOE/ State contracts. Some charter schools are formed from rump staffs of ostensibly closed Catholic schools, and on Church land and buildings. These would seem like the best deal!

    • The Charter school is one “tool” in the tool belt. Whether that Charter school (or voucher feed school) needs to be “branded” Catholic is important. However, there are lots of Catholic schools that charge escalating tuition without enough consideration about whom they are serving and who they are pricing out. Is that right?

      • Certainly– if the town is more affluent they will tend to charge more, and have fewer ways to get State grants….. But a Charter CANNOT brand itself as Catholic. So you kind of need to study the people and buildings… many have their roots in churches, whether mainline, independent, or Catholic.

        Now I will get myself in trouble, but I would rather keep my son in a supposedly tough public school, than pay an extra dime to have his mind bombarded by some giant educational corporation with 65 schools on a list, or some Social Darwinist Presbyterians…. 🙂

  • Ken Sypal

    Well said! I think this is a hidden but huge challenge to the apostolic mission of the Church, at least in the DC metro area. In a time where the prevailing culture is so hostile to long held Christian truths, not having an affordable alternative could further imperil the future of the Church. And to add insult to injury for those of us who choose to send our kids to Catholic schools, we have to do so with after tax dollars, in addition to what we pay for the public schools through our property taxes. That means to be able to pay for $20k in tuitions, if you have an 25% effective tax rate, you have earn $26.7k in additional income. If we can’t get a voucher–which I doubt will ever happen–we should at least be able to take the tuitions a a deduction–which I similarly believe will never happen. Answer = homeschooling.

  • Joseph McDonald

    A curious omission, so far, here, is home schooling or as John Holt and Ivan Illich called it, early on, un-schooling and de-schooling, respectively. By such terms they meant nothing of the sort that the expressions have come to mean lately, namely, an absence of formal or rigorous education with the child, in Rousseau’s model, driving and securing whatever “learning” she desires or finds comfortable, no parental direction needed.

    Home schooling depends much, perhaps entirely, on the grace given to parents to be those first and most fully responsible for the formation of their children, formation of the entire child, not just book “larnin’: as they say in these here parts of the South. It means, the parent fully and actively controlling, managing, teaching the child in all things, even those items that get off-loaded to CCD and PRE, which, in many cases today, do a breathtakingly bad job of it.

    Maria Montessori was an outstanding Christian educator, perhaps the best modern in the great tradition of the Greek paideia transformed by Augustine, Chrysostom, and Basil, of Hugh of St. Victor, Ignatius of Loyola, Comenius and Blessed John Henry Newman. Classical Western education is wonderful stuff when presented in the curriculum of say, Mother of Divine Grace, a K-12 regionally-accredited Catholic “distance education” school. And our family has used it (the curriculum, not the distance learning, quite the oxymoronic term, no matter who uses it) for two decades and have, so far, got one boy through, OK, no vain glory, a Catholic university in Northern Indiana, known best these days as the winner of the ACC basketball championship in its second year in the conference, and a second boy waiting for the fateful announcement of his admission or exclusion next month.

    Well, good on you, some might say, but few families can do this. To which my family says, gentleman cow manure. Many, perhaps most families can homeschool. It is a matter, mostly, of will and priorities and commitment to the child’s best interests. But the desire to do it must also be rooted deeply in Church and biblical teaching about the family, the formation of children, and have broad parish and diocesan support. Or, I should say, it would be nice if it could have such support. Typically it does not, unlike that provided by a number of evangelical and Mennonite congregations and “Christian” schools, with homeschool divisions.

    It isn’t easy, and teaching Latin to what seem sometimes unbelieving pagan little brats is a sobering challenge. But then, you also get to rejoice with the angels when you listen to your fourteen-year old daughter offer her praise, singing the Gospel acclamation in clear, simple Latin, her crystal voice echoing off the Blessed Mother’s statue, and with her mother and brothers, sometimes in Latin, singing the antiphons, collects, and mass parts of a beautifully ordered NO mass (well, as beautifully ordered as an NO mass can be).

    • How curious is my omission? I teach homeschoolers through an online classical school and my wife also has started working with a homeschool cooperative. It was an omission only because my focus was on the high cost of a Catholic education and not necessarily the valid iterations and manifestations of those alternatives.

      • Joseph McDonald

        Point well taken. I was focused more on the possible solutions to the high costs you described than on the costs themselves. You and your wife are engaged in very good and necessary work, in my view, as skeptical as I am about distance ed. But that’s another conversation we can perhaps defer to the folks on Second Nature. (

        I suspect “pure” homeschooling may not play well as the preferred way forward in coming years, as Christians, regardless of tradition, come to terms with the neo-paganization of the US and the West. Parentsmust to be taught and developed and need to be broadly acculturated to Christian creation/culture, as thin as this is, now. Hybrid forms of of homeschooling in which the Church and support groups are active are needed now and going forward. But there is little enthusiasm, it seems, for this among the clergy and Catholic educators. There’s more interest in this, though, among our separated brethren. Imagine what an education apostalate to the children of undocumented immigrants might accomplish for the Kingdom.

        • Ken Sypal

          I think you are hitting the target dead center regarding the lack of enthusiasm among the clergy and catholic educators, Joseph! However, I don’t assume the lack of enthusiasm is based on a lack of good intentions, at least not around where I live. Rather I believe they are so overwhelmed by the task of just merely surviving, that the idea either doesn’t occur to them or never makes it high enough on the priority to get action. I think they are so embattled on some many fronts, always playing defense as it were, that it doesn’t occur to them to go on offense with more apostolic outreach as you suggest. And it doesn’t have to go to undocumented immigrants either, though that’s a fine place to apply energy. I believe there are many Catholic families who opt for public schools but would prefer to give their kids a good classical Catholic education if they had an affordable option or, for some of the more adventurous, a ready-made homeschooling community in which educators/clergy lending tangible assistance.

          • Joseph McDonald

            Yes, indeed, many of the clergy are overwhelmed with simply delivery good and necessary instruction to the laity who, untutored since parts of Vatican II went awry, think of the Church as another denomination that needs to get with the program of being as entertaining as the evangelicals. Or, so it seems in west Tennessee, where there are 48 Catholic congregations in the 21 counties and 170 miles between The Tennessee River and the Mississippi River (22 of those parishes are in Memphis proper). By comparison, in the Memphis Yellow Pages, alone, there are 582 Baptist congregations listed.

            But, we Catholics are much admired by many of the Southern Baptist Convention churches (think pro-life and traditional families and marriages) and the admiration is increasingly mutual. which suggests there might be some ways to engage in educational “co-belligerency,” especially homeschooling “co-belligerency”, and all the more so as the Pagans grow more insistent and confrontational.

    • Gary Houchens

      Late to the conversation here, and you are probably very familiar with this already, but the late Stratford Caldecott has written eloquently about Catholic homeschooling, in both the classical and “unschooling” traditions. He was particularly fond of Suze Andres’ “Little Way” approach, inspired by St. Therese of Lisiuex, which I wrote about here:

      And here:

      • Joseph McDonald

        I am increasingly fascinated by the connections between the Little Flower and homeschooling. Thanks for your links! We should listen to her and model our “little way” practices, accordingly. She is, after all, a doctor of the Church.

  • TomD

    There was a time when Catholic educators, especially at the elementary and secondary level, were almost exclusively religious, rather than laypeople. These religious made great personal, financial sacrifices to provide, for the most part, an excellent, low-cost education for our young people.

    Today, with vocations at much lower levels than in the pre-Vatican II Church, most Catholic schools must employ, almost exclusively, laypeople . . . with salaries and comprehensive benefits . . . that make education much more expensive. This reality is only one adverse affect from the decline in vocations in the Church.

    There was a time when, while still pursuing academic excellence, simplicity and modesty in educational attitudes and practices, were seen as virtues in Catholic education; today, mimicking much of the exclusivity consciousness of modern education, many schools have priced themselves away from the typical middle-class Catholic.

    • anni

      Thanks for making my point, TomD! I live in an area with a relative embarrassment of K-12 Catholic school options, of varying quality, of varying price points. Many families with more than one child can’t afford to attend because of cost, but it’s certainly not because the schools are paying their teachers well. Most of the teachers in a Catholic Ed setting are lay, and most don’t make enough to support a family. How to fund these schools in the context of falling vocations and rising costs to dioceses (which are by no means rich) is the the REAL pressing question.

  • This is a difficult problem. In Canada, the problem is similar. While Catholic schools are free, just like public schools, and offer a very good education (superior to secular public schools), they are usually not more than nominally Catholic – kind of like Notre Dame 🙂 If you want your children to have a real Catholic education you have to go private, and tuition can be just as high as in the U.S.

  • Rick Garnett

    In my view, school-choice (that is, public funding of parents’ educational choices) is a requirement of justice. But, as we all know, the politics of achieving justice are often difficult.

    Something to keep in mind, when we talk about “Catholic branding” or lament the possibility that Catholic schools are just public schools with a “sprinkling” of Catholic character: It is, in my experience, a huge (and wonderful) deal to have kids’ sacramental prep integrated with their regular schooling. At my kids’ school (in South Bend), the second-grade year seems almost like a year-long preparation for First Eucharist (and, similar things can be said about 7th grade and Confirmation). This integrated experience cannot be replicated at, say, a Great Hearts school. For what it’s worth.

  • MODG Teacher

    There’s a Montessori school where I live that openly professes to be a Catholic Montessori school, and I have to say that in my first-hand experience with some of the educators and many of the children and families involved with it, it’s a disaster. A classical education is what will really form the lives and intellects of young people, not the pseudo-learning espoused by the Montessori method.

    Not to mention the fact that I’ve done plenty of my own reading on Montessori for my own children, and it seems rather outdated. I teach for Mother of Divine Grace School, which others have mentioned, and know for a fact that it is one of the best programs in the country.

  • Gary Houchens

    Mr. Caro, well done. You raise many excellent questions. I tried to reflect on some of them here:

  • Kathleen

    My parents sacrificed to send the four of us to Catholic elementary and high schools – back in 1950s and 60s. It’s a matter or priorities – where do you want to spend your money?

    • Thomas Sharpe

      I attended Catholic HS at the end of the age of affordability. What was a $700/ year tuition is now $11,000/ year, $44K per child for four years.
      My wife and I have four children, don’t make that kind of money, and don’t want our children taught by teachers who don’t follow what the Church Teaches.