Hera Varmah: This Catholic Schools Week, let’s keep them for the next generation

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We need school choice now so that every child has a chance to learn.

This week, Catholics across the country celebrate Catholic Schools Week — but for most of the last 50 years, Catholic schools have been becoming just memories.

In many parts of the country, the local parish school might be something that grandparents or parents attended but no longer exists as an option for this generation and their children. As a Floridian who was blessed to attend a thriving Catholic school thanks to my home state’s strong school choice programs, I can say that it doesn’t have to be this way.

Despite heroic efforts from clergy and laity, advocates and independent networks, Catholic schools have been closing over the last half-century because schools cannot afford to keep covering the true cost of education, especially as enrollment and unexpected financial struggles arise.

In Florida, the nation’s North Star for school choice, a very different story is told. As a recent study showed, Florida is the only one out of the top 10 states with the highest Catholic school enrollment where trendlines have been moving in the right direction over the last decade. During that time, enrollment in Florida’s Catholic schools grew by 4.4% — compared, for instance, to the 30% drops seen in New York and New Jersey.

Now that Florida has expanded its school choice to all families in the state, this growth is rapidly accelerating. New data from the Florida Catholic Conference show that, in the 2023-24 school year alone, Catholic school enrollment grew by 4% across the Sunshine State. These numbers, which may seem modest at first glance, are a major departure from the trends seen elsewhere, even as Catholic school enrollment picks up across the nation.

In communities across the state, growth is far higher. Schools like Guardian Angels School, a fully certified STREAM campus in Clearwater, are seeing enrollment growth as high as 19% this year. More than anything, these trends are a sign of the parent demand that exists for the rigorous, values-grounded education that Catholic schools offer. When parents are given a choice, they often opt for Catholic schools.

My family made that choice, and it made all the difference in my life. Although I am not Catholic, attending Tampa Catholic High School profoundly shaped both my life trajectory and the person I’ve become. It was a true blessing to attend a school that not only captured my heart but also introduced me to teachers deeply committed to their community and students. Catholic education has a unique ability to serve diverse demographics, and I take great pride in being a product of it. More students should have the opportunity I did.

These numbers are not simply data points on a page — they are lives being changed every day. Families like mine and many others depend upon them, but for almost a generation, this opportunity has been disappearing. It’s hard to overstate the stakes.

In the years after the pandemic, it has become increasingly obvious that catastrophic learning loss occurred at schools across the nation — but not America’s Catholic schools. There, achievement stayed the same or improved even amid enormous challenges and significantly less funding. This life-changing opportunity should not be a disappearing resource — and thanks to school choice, it doesn’t have to be.

As schools across the country come together during National Catholic Schools Week to celebrate all that a Catholic education means to them, we as advocates have an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to expanding school choice — with clear eyes about the risks and what we stand to gain for the future if we succeed. We need school choice now so that every child has a chance to learn.


Hera Varmah is an external relations associate at the American Federation for Children and a Catholic school alum from Florida.

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