Florida leads America’s Catholic school rebound

(reimaginED) — One state stands out behind this year’s encouraging Catholic school rebound, and it’s the same one that’s been defying Catholic school trend lines for a decade.

Catholic school enrollment in Florida rose 6.3 percent in 2021-22, the biggest jump of any of the 10 states with the biggest Catholic enrollments and outpacing the 3.8 percent hike nationally, according to new state-by-state figures provided to reimaginED by the National Catholic Educational Association.

School choice deserves part of the credit.

Nationally, 6.8 percent of Catholic school students use state school choice scholarships, says the NCEA, which collected that data for the first time this year. In Florida, according to the NCEA, it’s 35.9 percent.

“The scholarships have been a tremendous blessing for us,” said Brenda Budd, principal of Tampa’s St. Joseph Catholic School, which is nearing capacity after being in danger of closing a decade ago. “They have allowed us to serve our mission.”

This year’s bounce-back nationally doesn’t quite erase the prior year’s 6.4 percent drop. But it offers hope to a sector that continues to struggle with long-term enrollment loss despite a sustained reputation for quality and equity.

Among the 10 biggest Catholic school states, California saw a 5.2 percent increase; New Jersey, a 3.9 percent increase. Other states with large Catholic school sectors that saw big gains include Minnesota (up 8.0 percent), Massachusetts (up 6.9 percent), Michigan (up 6.2 percent) and Indiana (up 4.7 percent).

Since 2011-12, Catholic school enrollment has fallen 17 percent nationally — it now stands at 1,688, 417 — and dropped by double digit percentages in nine of the 10 biggest Catholic school states.

In Florida, Catholic school enrollment has risen 0.7 percent over that span. This, even though in Florida’s choice-rich education environment, more options are sprouting all the time.

Ten years ago, enrollment at the 125-year-old, PreK-8 St. Joseph Catholic School had dipped to 160 students. This year, it’s up to 296 students, with nearly 90 percent using choice scholarships. (Several of those scholarship programs are administered by Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that hosts this article.)

About 85 percent of the families served by St. Joseph are Hispanic. To ensure families are comfortable and communication is top-notch, the school has assembled a largely bilingual staff.

“We have to earn our right as educators every day,” said Chris Pastura, superintendent of the Diocese of St. Petersburg, which includes St. Joseph. “If we’re not able to give parents an education that’s the best for their children, they can go elsewhere.”

Expect more good news about Catholic schools in Florida going forward.

Last year, Florida lawmakers expanded income eligibility thresholds for the two biggest scholarship programs, which will make Catholic schools (and other private schools) accessible to even more low- and middle-income families who deem them the best fit for their children.


This article originally appeared on reimaginED.