The Catholic education renaissance

Catholic schools enroll roughly four of every ten private-school students in the country, making them the largest and farthest-reaching segment of American private education. And while they’ve seen their enrollment decline for decades, a growing number of initiatives is pushing against the tide, looking to attract new students and revitalize their academics.

As Andy Smarick notes, there seems to be a “wave of Catholic education innovation and entrepreneurialism that we probably haven’t seen since the 1880s, when the nation’s Catholic bishops mandated the creation of thousands of parish schools in response to rampant anti-Catholic bigotry.”

Across the nation, religious and lay leaders are creating new schools, new networks of schools, new governance models for existing schools, new pipelines of talent, new philanthropic efforts, new public programs, and much more. But all of this is taking place inside the time-tested boundaries of authentic Catholic education.

From Tampa to Orlando to Miami, there are plenty of signs this is happening in Florida. And there may be more to come.

It’s arguably one of the under-appreciated trends in education reform.

Two other trends might be related.

First, Catholic schools face increased competition from charter schools, whose free tuition and private-school-like atmosphere are attracting parents who might have considered Catholic schools in the past. This might be creating new pressure for Catholic schools to revamp their academics and try new things.

Second, the growth of private school choice programs is changing the way private schools operate, enabling them to reach low-income students who might have struggled to afford tuition in the past, and even develop new school models that cater to low-income and working-class students. It’s clear scholarship programs are helping to reverse enrollment declines in private schools as a whole.

Smarick points to big changes happening in Catholic education in places, like New York, that don’t have publicly supported private school choice programs. And it’s possible a renaissance would have taken hold in Catholic education without competitive pressure from charter schools.

But it seems likely that both factors are spurring it along.

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BY Travis Pillow

Travis Pillow is Director of Thought Leadership at Step Up For Students and editor of NextSteps. He lives in Sanford, Fla. with his wife and two children. A former Tallahassee statehouse reporter, he most recently worked at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at Arizona State University, where he studied community-led learning innovation and school systems' responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. He can be reached at tpillow (at)