In 1884, the Third Plenary Council of the U.S. Bishops, held in Baltimore, Md., encouraged every parish to establish a parochial school for the benefit of the children of the parish.
However, the commitment of Catholics in the United States to Catholic education began much earlier. In 1789, Georgetown University was founded as the first Catholic college in the United States. In 1791, St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore opened its doors. Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton opened a free school staffed by sisters in 1810. In 1828, Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange and her companions opened the first Catholic school for African-American children in the United States. Throughout the nineteenth century, many orders of religious men and women came to the United States to establish schools for the rapidly growing Catholic population.
In 2007, total Catholic school student enrollment was 2,397,187 with 6,562 elementary schools educating 1,724,761 students and 1,350 high schools educating 672,426 students. Minority students made up 25.7% of the total enrollment and non-Catholic students were 13.8% of the total enrollment (up from 11.2% in 1980 and 2.7% in 1970).
In addition to students attending Catholic schools, 3,387,142 students at public elementary schools and 732, 917 students at public high schools receive religious education.
The Catholic Church in the United States holds an important place in higher education as well, with 220 traditional four-year degree colleges and universities and 16 single program and theological houses of study open to lay students. Between 1980 and 2005, enrollment in Catholic colleges and universities increased by 60.88%. Since 1980, 15 new Catholic colleges and universities have been founded. Together, these colleges and universities educate nearly 800,000 students.
Still, Catholic education in the United States faces many challenges in the twenty-first century, particularly in urban areas. During the 2006-2007 school year, 36 new schools opened, but 212 schools were closed or consolidated. Since 1990, there has been a net decline of more than 800 Catholic schools. To address this trend and to support Catholic schools for the future, the Bishops of the United States approved in June 2005 the statement, Renewing our Commitment to Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools in the Third Millennium. In this statement, they called for the entire Catholic community—bishops, priests, deacons, religious, and lay to work together to promote the Church’s educational mission, particularly in urban areas, to address diversity in the Church’s population, to ensure a stable and adequate funding base, and to maintain the excellence and mission of Catholic schools.
Numerous dioceses and groups of dioceses are currently engaged in long-range planning to sustain Catholic schools for the future.
Sources: Official Catholic Directory, National Catholic Educational Association, Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. National Center for Education Statistics