Facing enrollment declines, Texas Catholic schools are leading supporters of school vouchers

A classroom at Sacred Heart Parish School in Uvalde, on Aug. 14, 2022. The school is preparing for classes to begin the following day, a full month ahead of public schools in the Uvalde district.
A classroom at Sacred Heart Parish School in Uvalde, on Aug. 14, 2022. Credit: Evan L'Roy for The Texas Tribune

As the Texas Legislature debates school vouchers, one of the staunchest supporters of the initiative has been the Catholic Church.

Texas Catholic leaders have been among the longest-running advocates for Gov. Greg Abbott’s top current legislative priority, which would allow parents to use taxpayer money for private education expenses. That’s true even as some other religious leaders have firmly opposed the legislation.

Why are they divided? Catholic leaders say other religious leaders don’t fully appreciate the voucher program’s benefits, particularly its potential to expand access to private education. Voucher critics say Catholic leaders are acting in the interest of their own schools, which have experienced declining enrollment for decades, while promoting a program that could harm public schools.

A voucher program would give parents the opportunity to choose a religious education regardless of their income level, said Jennifer Allmon, executive director of the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops, which oversees all 254 Catholic schools in Texas.

“It'll take a few years, but our primary hope is that it will open the doors of our schools to even more low-income families and provide even greater access for those who wish to use Catholic schools for the education of their children,” Allmon said.

Historic enrollment decline

Aside from a post-pandemic surge, Catholic school enrollment has been declining nationwide since the late 1960s, according to the National Catholic Educational Association. In 2021, Catholic schools across the country saw the largest single-year decrease in enrollment in more than 50 years.

Texas has not escaped the trend. From 2019-22, enrollment at Catholic schools in the state fell by more than 5,000 students, or 7.6%, with only four states experiencing sharper declines, according to the NCEA. The Catholic conference reported a smaller enrollment drop of 2.8%, or 1,855 students, during that same period. The Catholic conference collects enrollment data directly from schools in October each year, while the NCEA relies on annual reports from the superintendents of each diocese in mid-September, factors which may contribute to the discrepancy in the two organizations' data.

Eight Catholic schools in Texas closed during the pandemic, Allmon said. But, she added, Texas Catholic schools also saw an uptick in enrollment among high-income families during that time, which she said underscores the need for a voucher program to help low-income families afford religious education.

“In the 2021 to 2022 school year, because we opened up in-person and didn’t have mask requirements in most places, families with means had choice, and they used it,” Allmon said. “And the low-income lost their spots because their income took a dip.”

The Texas Catholic Conference, which employs five legislative lobbyists, has pressed for no limits on the number of low-income families supported by a voucher program.

Senate Bill 1, passed by the Texas Senate on Oct. 12, states “no more than” 40% of spots in the program are reserved for students who receive free or reduced lunch and “no more than” 30% to families who earn between 185% and 500% of the federal poverty line. House Bill 1, however, prioritizes low-income students with disabilities and places no limit on how many of the education savings accounts can go to these underprivileged students — which is why the Catholic conference supports the prioritization language in the House version, Allmon said.

More than 62,000 students were enrolled in Texas Catholic schools in the 2021-22 school year, according to the Texas Catholic Conference. In a 2022 survey, the conference found 16,832 vacancies in 122 Catholic schools — with an average of 109 open seats in grade schools and 60 in high schools.

Lois Goudeau, head of St. Mary Magdalene Catholic School in Humble, said her pre-K through 8th grade school currently enrolls 365 students but has capacity for 25 more. The church’s Catholic Christian Education program, an after-school religious education class, has about 800 students, so Goudeau believes more families in her community would seek Catholic education if not for the tuition barrier.

Education savings accounts, the school voucher program being debated by the Legislature, would provide families with state money to help pay for private school tuition and other education expenses. SB1 would give families $8,000 annually, while HB1 would give them 75% of the average amount their public school receives in per-student funding.

On average, Allmon said, annual Catholic school tuition in the state is $6,800 for grade schools and $10,300 for high schools. St. Mary’s tuition is $6,000, Goudeau said.

“We hope that we get a boost from [vouchers] because enrollment in a lot of our private schools, particularly Catholic schools, has been down over the past few years because people don’t have that expendable money, and they’re not looking to spend it on tuition for their students,” Goudeau said. “It is something that the archdiocese and all of our schools and our organizations have been pushing for.”

Questions over church-state separation

For some voucher critics, funneling taxpayer dollars to religious schools raises concerns about the separation of church and state.

The Texas Constitution prohibits using money from the state treasury “for the benefit of any sect, or religious society, theological or religious seminary.” However, in a 2022 religious discrimination case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that tuition assistance programs, or school vouchers, must include religious schools if they are available to nonreligious private schools.

The ruling was a major win for pro-voucher religious schools and leaders, but opponents say it raises thorny issues when people’s tax dollars are sent to religious institutions that have beliefs they do not share.

“As a Baptist, I don’t believe in the infallibility of the Pope like my Catholic friends, nor do I believe in the veneration of Mary like my Catholic friends,” said Charles Johnson, a Baptist pastor and executive director of Pastors for Texas Children, which opposes vouchers. “I don’t want to pay for those two teachings in Catholic schools.”

Johnson said his organization represents almost 1,000 churches that share these concerns.

But Allmon said there is a long tradition in Texas of partnerships between the government and religious groups. Texas provides child-care grants that parents can use at religiously affiliated day care centers and tuition grants that college students can use at private religious universities.

“We’ve not had any government intrusion or problems in either of those two sectors,” Allmon said. “It’s worked perfectly well to have that partnership for kids under 5 and people 18 and over, so it’s just a matter of applying it to kids 5 to 18.”

Goudeau said her concern with a voucher program would be government intrusion into the private school admissions process. Voucher critics have argued that selective private school admissions may keep special needs or other underprivileged students out of these schools, even if they were selected for a voucher.

SB1 bars the state from taking any measures to regulate the curriculum, admissions or religious values of private schools that enroll students with vouchers.

A student’s potential for academic success and adherence to the school’s Catholic standards are both factors in the admissions process at St. Mary’s, Goudeau added. Along with typical grade-school classes, St. Mary’s students attend religion class daily and mass weekly.

“If we’re allowed to continue operating as we do now, we wouldn’t just accept every kid anyway,” Goudeau said.

A complicated divide

Twenty years ago, church-state separation was the primary concern for religious leaders who oppose vouchers, said Bee Moorhead, executive director of Texas Impact, an interfaith advocacy group fighting vouchers. But more recently, she said, leaders and congregation members have joined Texas Impact primarily over worries that a voucher program would harm public schools.

“The conversation has gotten much more dire,” she said. “People see this as not just a preference for not using tax dollars to subsidize religious education. They see it as … a nail in the coffin of public schools.”

Erik Gronberg, the Lutheran bishop of the Northern Texas-Northern Louisiana Synod, said he has taken particular issue with Abbott recruiting religious leaders to advocate for the program. Earlier this month, the governor, who is Catholic, declared a “School Choice Sunday” and joined a handful of religious leaders across denominations to host a virtual town hall in support of vouchers.

“He was trying to encourage pastors to speak in favor of vouchers and that, from my perspective, was a real crossing of the line,” Gronberg said. “We are called to advocate for justice. We’ve got to advocate for the poor and marginalized. We’re called to talk about issues as they arise, but this is clearly a very partisan issue and something that is very near and dear to his heart.”

Still, some non-Catholic religious schools see merit in a voucher program. Chrystal Bernard, head of Braveheart Christian Academy, oversees a 20-student school founded in 2021 that primarily serves students of color.

Many Braveheart students come from low-income families, Bernard said, and the school has a program allowing parents to volunteer in exchange for tuition discounts. Still, the discounts are modest, and not all families can make up the difference.

“This would be life changing for some of our students,” Bernard said of education savings accounts.

David DeMatthews, an associate educational policy professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said there is not a clear divide on vouchers between the Catholic Church and other religions.

Some religious leaders see vouchers as antithetical to supporting public schools and equal access to education for all children. Others, amid dwindling enrollment, see it as an opportunity to allow more parents to choose schools that align with their family’s religion and values.

“For private religious schools that have a moral underpinning, it's a really tenuous spot to support a bill that allows schools, for example, to discriminate against children with disabilities, especially with public money,” DeMatthews said. “There's a moral aspect to this, especially when religious organizations claim to take the moral high ground.”

Disclosure: Pastors for Texas Children and University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Clarification, Oct. 31, 2023 at 4:00 p.m. : An earlier version of this story said the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops supports the Texas House's main school voucher bill. The group said it supports some parts of the bill, like its language on how to prioritize funds for the program, but prefers the Texas Senate on other aspects.