Catholic Schools Excel

Published July 1, 2002

Despite spending less than half what the public schools spend on educating children in poverty, Catholic schools in three New York boroughs outperform the public schools in both reading and mathematics at every grade level, according to a recent study we conducted of per-student cost and achievement of Catholic and public elementary schools in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx.

The direct per-pupil costs for general education students are $5,124 in the public schools and $2,399 in Catholic schools—46.8 percent of the public school cost.

Although both Catholic and public schools achieve less as the percentage of their enrollment represented by children in poverty increases, Catholic schools substantially mitigate the effect of poverty, so that rising levels of poverty produce far smaller negative effects on learning in Catholic than public schools.

NY Litigants Want More Money

These findings are significant because of litigation advanced by advocates for greater state spending on New York City public schools. Although evidence admissible in court showed the City’s public school per-student expenditures are higher than any other big city in the nation, plaintiffs maintain more money is required to attract more teachers and to keep veteran teachers on the job. Plaintiffs also maintain that citizens in other parts of the state, including areas of urban and rural poverty, should pay a greater share of the City’s public school costs of educating children in poverty.

With nearly 1.1 million students, the New York City public school system is the largest school district in the U.S., spending more than $9 billion annually. The New York City public schools receive large amounts of funding from the federal government for special categorical programs: $377 million from the federal government alone for children below the poverty line.

The federal and New York state governments also contribute extra amounts for children diagnosed as “learning disabled” or “limited-English proficient” in New York City and other big cities in the state with concentrated poverty. Such categorical programs have a long history of failure to help the very children for whom they are intended. Evaluations often show children in such programs achieve less than comparable children who do not receive such services.

Study after study shows poverty and poverty-related factors—such as prenatal morbidity, alcoholism, drug addiction, crime, and teen pregnancy—do retard learning. Plaintiffs argue New York City cannot overcome such effects without even more money.

Comparing Public, Catholic School Spending

To probe this contention, we studied the per-student cost and achievement of Catholic and public elementary schools in three New York City boroughs: Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx.

To make their costs comparable, we subtracted from each public school’s expenditures the costs of government-funded special programs including compensatory programs for children in poverty, bilingual education for non-English speakers, and special programs for various categories of disability, such as mental retardation and learning disabilities. Such services are much less often provided by Catholic schools.

We also subtracted the costs of transportation and food services from pubic school expenditures, which Catholic schools less often provide. Finally, we subtracted from the public school expenditures the costs of the central office and 32 community school boards, which support large bureaucracies that oversee and regulate the public schools.

We could then compare general education students in the borough schools with students in the Catholic schools in the same boroughs on state-required third- and sixth-grade reading and mathematics achievement tests, as well as the direct per-student costs of educating the two sets of students.

As well as outperforming the public schools in every instance, Catholic schools also are more successful than the public schools in mitigating the negative effects of rising poverty levels on student learning.

Paul Peterson is Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government at Harvard University Kennedy School of Government. Herbert Walberg is Research Professor of Education and Psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. They are distinguished visiting fellows at the Stanford University Hoover Institution and members of Hoover’s Koret K-12 Task Force.

For more information …

For additional details, see William Howell and Paul E. Peterson, The Education Gap: Vouchers and Urban Schools (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 2002).