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A variety of studies since, by scholars at the University of Chicago, Northwestern, the Brookings Institution, and Harvard, have all supported the conclusion that Catholic schools do a better job educating children, especially the poor and minorities, than public schools. And secular, for Catholics, meant a certain slackness in moral and academic discipline. “The answer is fairly simple,” says James Cultrara, director for education for the New York State Catholic Conference.

[] The problem is that there no longer are busloads of nuns; in fact, most schools would be lucky to have a Mini Cooper’s worth of such minimum-wage professional teachers.

Their ranks have declined by a staggering 62 percent since 1965 (from 180,000 to 68,000).

Bobby and I stood outside the small public elementary school that our children attended, pondering our respective 1st graders’ prospects.

The weeds poked up through the asphalt, the windows on the 30-year-old building were dirty, the playground equipment was rotting. We grew up on opposite sides of the country (he in New York and I in Oregon), but we both grew up Catholic, in the ’50s, and that meant one thing if nothing else: nuns. Before “tough love” there was Sister Patrick Mary or Sister Elizabeth Maureen.

Despite a growing Catholic population (from 45 million in 1965 to almost 77 million today, making it the largest Christian denomination in the United States), Catholic school enrollment has plummeted, from 5.2 million students in nearly 13,000 schools in 1960 to 2.5 million in 9,000 schools in 1990.

After a promising increase in the late 1990s, enrollment had by 2006 dropped to 2.3 million students in 7,500 schools.

Catholics still make up about one-quarter of the American population, but their schools enroll less than 5 percent of all students (see Figure 3). What happened to a school system that at one time educated one of every eight American children? As most educators know, Catholic schools work and have worked for a long time. When I got to school, I saw this guy hanging from a cross with nails in his hands and feet and I figured they meant business.’” What Catholic schools are very good at, it seems, is getting kids’ attention. The establishment of order and discipline, in all things: We wore uniforms. We had to eat our lunch, even the peas and carrots. By reaching for God, the “all-knowing,” so the nuns said, we might know thing even if our reach fell short. All of it, we knew, on some preternatural level, made us “better.” And the research seems to support that view.Sociologist James Coleman and colleagues Thomas Hoffer and Sally Kilgore, in 1982, were among the first to document Catholic schools’ academic successes, in . My wife remembers classmates having to put a nickel in the “mission box” if they mispronounced a word—“libary” instead of library or “pitcher” instead of picture—at her Jersey City parochial grade school. In fact, one of the “surprises” for the researchers, who deemed Catholic schools’ academic focus both consistent and laudable, was that the schools seemed to succeed even when the teaching and the curriculum were “ordinary.” Such Catholic rigor was part missionary zeal—to spread “the word”—and part defense against the encroachments of an increasingly secular world.The staff composition of Catholic schools has similarly been turned on its head, from some 90 percent female religious in the ’50s to less than 5 percent today (see Figure 1).“The school system had literally been built on their backs,” reported Anthony Bryk, Valerie Lee, and Peter Holland in their 1992 study , “through the services they contributed in the form of the very low salaries that they accepted.” Consequently, costs have soared; average annual tuition has gone from next to nothing to more than ,400 in elementary schools and almost ,000 in high schools.Inside the K–2 school, some 600 kids were being prepared for academic underachievement: in a few more years two-thirds of them would be unable to read at grade level. The guardians of moral order and academic achievement for several generations of Catholic boys and girls, these robed religious women ruled with—well, with rulers. Before No Child Left Behind there were behinds burnished by a swift kick from a foot that emerged without warning from under several acres of robes.

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Indeed, our childhood memories, different in detail, were singular in their moral clarity: we knew what a busload of nuns could do. (Yes, there would be aisles, in a room filled with 30 to 50 kids—phooey on class size.) And with a glance from behind their starched white wimples, we would learn.

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