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The Deacon's Bench

A new report paints the clearest picture yet of what is happening in Catholic education — and what isn’t.

USA Today has a snapshot:

For years, parents at St. Joseph School, a tiny Catholic school in Petersburg, Va., have fretted over just about everything: The 133-year-old school is losing students and faces a debt of $500,000 — plus another $500,000 in repairs. Among its needs: new windows, a paint job and a roof.

Then, a week ago, the Richmond Diocese told St. Joseph boosters to raise the $1 million by April 21 or the school will close for good. Now a small group of parents is beating the bushes for donors, everyone from local business owners to Oprah Winfrey.

“It’s a small, very nurturing school,” says Ella Dickinson, whose older son attends kindergarten. “There is very much a sense of family.”

St. Joseph finds itself in a plight shared by hundreds of schools. As Pope Benedict XVI prepares to visit the USA next week, a report released today by a Washington education think tank finds that more than 1,300 Catholic schools, most of them in big cities, have closed since 1990.

The report, by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, estimates that 300,000 students — twice as many as were displaced by Hurricane Katrina — have had to find other public, private or parochial schools. Fordham reports that the closings have cost taxpayers more than $20 billion as public schools absorbed many students.

“This has been a slow-moving disaster for going on 40 years,” says Fordham vice president Mike Petrilli. He says the schools have long faced changing demographics as Catholics moved to suburbs and higher-paid lay teachers and administrators replaced nuns.

Overall, Catholic school enrollment now stands at about 2.3 million, down from the peak of 5.2 million in the early 1960s.

You can find more details at the USA Today link.

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