A Neighborhood’s Quality of Life

Lost Classroom, Lost Community

by Margaret F. Brinig and Nicole Stelle Garnett
2014 University of Chicago Press, 248 pages, $45.00
Purchase this book

Since their peak enrollment in the 1960s, roughly half of all Catholic schools have closed. The pace of closings has increased with enrollment attrition and with competition from the recent rise of charter schools; nationwide, more than two thousand Catholic schools have closed since the year 2000.

Though arguments for policy reforms to halt this trend have typically focused on the tradition of solid Catholic education within parish communities, Notre Dame law professors Margaret Brinig and Nicole Stelle Garnett contribute an insightful new analysis in Lost Classroom, Lost Community. Urban parochial schools are essential institutions for neighborhood civic life worthy of broader and more vigorous public support.

Brinig and Garnett suggest that the loss of collective social capital from the closure of Catholic schools isolates neighbors and leads to greater perceptions of disorder and danger within communities. Neighbors’ mounting fears of victimhood coupled with the loss of relationships that might address these concerns invite real disorder and crime. A neighborhood’s quality of life deteriorates.

To test their theory, Brinig and Garnett have conducted an extensive study of data from more than two hundred schools and their surrounding neighborhoods in the Archdiocese of Chicago, the country’s largest Catholic school system. The most significant predictor of a school closing, more than socioeconomic or racial shifts, is “irregular” parish leadership—the inability of a pastor to lead a parish either because of age, illness, withdrawal from the priesthood, or more tragically, accusations of sexual or substance abuse. Conversely, parishes with more recently ordained or longer-serving pastors—particularly if they were ordained in the archdiocese—have greater likelihood of schools remaining open despite demographic challenges. Brinig and Garnett suggest this is because these newer or strongly rooted pastors may have, respectively, more energy to manage a school and a greater commitment to the success of their parish and archdiocese.

The authors’ analysis of census data and the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods finds a strong correlation between a closed school and nearby residents’ reports of not only petty crime and “broken windows” but also feelings that neighbors are unfriendly, unhelpful, untrustworthy, and lacking shared values. The crime rate in neighborhoods with an open Catholic school was 33 percent lower than in neighborhoods where one had recently closed, a finding which the authors argue should give governments and law enforcement a vested interest in public policies to support struggling urban parochial schools.

Brinig and Garnett take steps to show that the patterns they have found are common to parochial schools in other dioceses, and that they are specific to Catholic schools but not to public or charter schools. While their analysis of Philadelphia Catholic schools mirrors that of Chicago and suggests their basic conclusions are replicable, Los Angeles appears to be an outlier. Brinig and Garnett suggest that its essentially suburban land-use patterns and more transient population result in less social capital to begin with. Its Catholic schools have not followed the same historically dense, organic, parish-centered growth patterns of neighborhoods in East Coast and Midwestern cities. The authors’ comparison of charter schools and crime data—though less firm than their Catholic school analysis—shows they have no significant effect on crime rates one way or another, though some figures suggest an increase in crime in neighborhoods where a charter opened in a shuttered parish school.

Lost Classroom, Lost Community presents these findings in the context of a “communitarian defense” of school choice policies to bolster threatened urban Catholic schools and declining neighborhoods. Though Brinig and Garnett float the possibility of publicly supported religious charter schools—currently not permitted by prevailing Establishment Clause doctrine—they clearly support voucher programs, which have been upheld by courts as subsidies to parents for education, rather than direct governmental funding of religious schools.

The authors do not, however, address potential concerns that voucher programs could allow elected officials to influence Catholic schools’ doctrinal integrity. Though regulations threatening Catholic schools’ faithfulness to Church teaching could be imposed even in the absence of vouchers, restrictions based on ideological grounds could theoretically prevent parents from directing funds to a parochial school. Brinig and Garnett’s empirical focus, though broad, leaves little room for any discussion of how reformed curricula—such as those modeled on classical education1—might forge a distinct alternative to the perception that parochial schools are merely pay-to-enter public curricula with religion attached, and create more compelling reasons for families to choose Catholic education.

Lost Classroom, Lost Community’s sobering last chapter asks readers to imagine the implications of cities without Catholic schools: the loss of quality, social capital-building education in traditional neighborhoods, leaving families unable to afford alternatives to poor-quality public schools struggling in the wake of others seeking refuge away from their declining neighborhoods. “Our cities may well survive (indeed, they may have to survive) without Catholic schools,” Brinig and Garnett conclude, “but our evidence suggests strongly that they would be better off if they did not have to do so.”