NYC Study Hails Catholic Schools

Published June 1, 2001

Despite attending schools that have significantly lower per-pupil funding levels, relatively fewer administrators, and higher student-teacher ratios, students in Catholic schools in New York City already outperform their public school peers by fourth grade, and they significantly widen that performance gap by eighth grade, according to a new study of New York City schools.

In Catholic schools in inner-city neighborhoods, where students are almost entirely non-white and poor, the percentage of eighth-grade students passing state tests is about twice that of neighborhood public schools.

“There can be no doubt that some public school students who are now trapped in failing public schools would benefit from a publicly subsidized transfer to the local Catholic school,” concludes the study’s author, public school advocate Raymond Domanico.

Domanico is senior education advisor to the Metro New York Industrial Areas Foundation, a network of community organizers working with parents of public school students on issues of public school improvement.

Because of the limited number of seats available in Catholic schools, Domanico admits it is not possible to completely solve the achievement problem in the city’s public schools by transferring students to Catholic schools. However, he notes, the benefits to the students who could transfer would be “enormous.”

A “True Public Benefit”

“Those who wish to hold the line against tuition vouchers or tax credits need to own up to the very real human cost of that opposition,” Domanico writes, noting Catholic schools face “ongoing financial and operational crises.”

“The City of New York and its poor and working class families cannot afford to lose these Catholic schools,” says Domanico. “[A] reasonable case can be made,” he continues, “for taxpayer support of the poor families that are already enrolling youngsters in the Catholic schools.”

According to Domanico, Catholic schools in poor and minority neighborhoods already are providing “a true public benefit” by educating some 30,000 students to higher levels of achievement than their peers in the overcrowded neighborhood public schools. Domanico’s analysis strongly suggests that cutbacks in the city’s Catholic school system would harm the public interest, and that the schools and the families they serve are deserving of public support.

Studying Student Performance

Domanico’s March 2001 study, “Catholic Schools in New York City,” was commissioned by Joseph P. Viteritti, who heads the Program on Education and Civil Society at New York University. Viteritti is the author of Choosing Equality: School Choice, the Constitution, and Civil Society (Brookings Institution Press, 1999), in which he favors a school choice system designed specifically to benefit the poor.

Domanico’s comparison of public and private school performance in New York was made possible by the decision of the Archdiocese of New York and the Archdiocese of Brooklyn to have all their schools participate in the state’s fourth- and eighth-grade English language arts and math exams. Since 1999, the New York Education Department has required all students in public schools to take these exams, but private schools participated only on a voluntary basis.

Catholic schools, according to Domanico, reported higher average scores than public schools in both subjects at both grade levels, with differences widening in the eighth grade. Specifically, Domanico found:

  • In English language arts, a 9.8 point advantage for Catholic schools in grade 4 almost doubled to a 17.0 point edge by grade 8.
  • In math, a 6.9 point advantage for Catholic schools in grade 4 almost tripled to a 20.0 point edge by grade 8.

Students in Catholic schools pass the state tests at a higher rate than their counterparts in public schools, with that difference again widening in the eighth grade:

  • In English language arts, Catholic schools enjoyed an 8.0 percentage point advantage in pass rate over public schools in grade 4, with the edge more than doubling to 18.9 percentage points by grade 8.
  • In math, Catholic schools enjoyed a 7.3 percentage point advantage in pass rate over public schools in grade 4, with that edge increasing to 12.6 percentage points by grade 8.

Best for Low-Achieving Students

The difference between the Catholic and public school systems in New York City is most marked when measured by the percentage of students who fall into the lowest-scoring category:

  • In English language arts, 23.2 percent of public school eighth-graders fall into this category, compared to only 6.0 percent of Catholic school eighth-graders.
  • In math, 43.6 percent of public school eighth-graders fall into this category, compared to 18.6 percent of Catholic school eighth-graders.

Although teacher union president Randi Weingarten, head of the United Federation of Teachers, told The New York Times the study failed to take adequate account of the smaller number of special education students served by Catholic schools, that issue was in fact addressed by Domanico.

State test data for 1999 indicate that including special education students in a regular student test population would change the study’s three test measures by about 5 points. That potential adjustment is too small to account for the reported differences between Catholic and public schools at eighth grade, which are at least double that figure.

For more information . . .

Raymond Domanico’s March 2001 study, “Catholic Schools in New York City,” is available from New York University’s Program on Education and Civil Society at 269 Mercer Street, New York, NY 10003-6687, 212/8998-7505.