My grandma and grandpa, heroes of the faith, put six kids through Catholic school, grades K-12. They lived across the street from St. Theresa Church and School in southwest Little Rock.
My grandpa was a welder, and my grandma helped clean the church. I have asked them how they did it, and they talk about sacrifices like only owning one car and growing an extensive garden. But they also give credit to the religious sisters, in our case the Benedictine sisters of St. Scholastica in Fort Smith. In the late 1960s, my mother brought $10 a month to St. Theresa School to pay for tuition.
Catholic schools are built on the shoulders of the religious orders who staffed them for so long, ministering to children for meager pay. My grandparents, like many others, are grateful their kids were able to get such a good education at a price that was affordable for their family. Let’s address the elephant in the room and talk about money. In this discussion about Arkansas LEARNS, there is a discussion of how it is defunding public schools. Has anybody ever talked about the savings Catholic schools have provided to public school districts over the years?
Let’s use St. Theresa School as a mathematical example. In the 2022-2023 school year, right at this moment, excluding our pre-kindergarten, we have a K-8 enrollment of 179 students. Did you know the Little Rock School District spends $13,757 per student this school year? Assuming all students reside in the boundaries of LRSD, the 179 students enrolled in St. Theresa School saved LRSD $2.4 million a year.
According to the USCCB, U.S. Catholic schools provide a savings of $24 billion a year to public school districts.
For the entirety of the time Catholic schools have been in operation in Arkansas, they have not been supported by taxpayer funds. That’s 144 years for St. Joseph School in Conway, 102 years for Holy Rosary School in Stuttgart, 93 years for Catholic High School and 64 years for St. Theresa School in Little Rock. The list goes on with the other 22 Catholic schools in Arkansas.
Did you know the first Catholic schools in the United States, by and large, were opened for immigrant children? Irish-American students were taught by Irish-American priests and nuns. In Arkansas, the first Catholic school was Mount St. Mary Academy, founded in 1851. Why was there such a push to educate immigrants in Catholic schools? “...the bishops, responding to complaints about Protestant domination of public schools, ordered every parish to build a school. Waves of mostly poor, immigrant children were educated at these schools…” (“The Changing Face of Catholic Education, Timothy Egan, Aug. 6, 2000, The New York Times)
Let me be clear. When the public school system operated in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it did not operate under a separation of church and state. The system sought to educate as well as form the character of the child. But what was the framework for the formation of character? Tenets of Protestant Christianity. That proved to be challenging for Catholic students and families. Bishops realized we needed schools that could provide formation using Catholic faith tenets, and Catholic schools were born.
In 2023, many people describe Catholic schools with terms that imply wealth, elitism and exclusion. I can only speak about my school, St. Theresa School, but none of those descriptors apply to us. What does describe St. Theresa School? Immigrants. Middle class. Diverse. Impoverished. English Language Learners. Hard-working. Welcoming.
We have educated millions of children, and in the process we have saved local districts billions of dollars. On behalf of every overworked and underpaid Catholic school employee, I express my gratitude for the opportunity to access public funds to educate our children.
Kristy Dunn is principal of St. Theresa School in Little Rock.
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