The Catholic parochial school system developed in the 19th cent. as a response to what was then seen as Protestant domination of the public school system in the United States. A group of American bishops met in the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore (1884) to plan for the establishment of a comprehensive parochial school system. Local churches were directed to establish elementary schools for the education of the parish children. In time a number of secondary, or high, schools, supported by a diocese and encompassing a number of parish schools, were also established. Both the elementary and secondary schools developed a religious curriculum emphasizing Catholic doctrine along with a secular curriculum very similar to that of the public schools.
During the middle of the 20th cent., much of parochial education's traditional structure began to change. The ecumenical spirit generated by the Second Vatican Council (1962–65) convinced many Roman Catholics that the religious education of the parochial school was too separatist. Moreover, parochial schools suffered from the criticism that public schools provided a better secular education at less cost. Because of such criticisms, parochial schools were forced to hire lay teachers, who came to account for an increasingly larger proportion of the faculty. Beginning in the mid-1960s, Roman Catholic schools began to encounter severe financial problems; many parish schools were closed and the Catholic school population dropped sharply.
Although parochial schools still account for the bulk of the attendance at private schools in the United States, their loss of students and their financial difficulties have forced them to seek aid from public sources, most often in the form of tax subsidies or credits for the parents of parochial school children. Under the
child-benefit theory, government aid has been provided to the students of parochial schools, rather than to the schools themselves; by means of this compromise, the constitutional provision against aid to religious institutions is circumvented. In a number of cases, however, the U.S. Supreme Court has decided against state laws providing such aid to parochial schools, claiming that they violate the principle of separation between church and state.
See N. McCluskey, Catholic Education Faces Its Future (1968); R. Shaw and R. Hurley, ed., Trends and Issues in Catholic Education (1969); H. Buetow, Of Singular Benefit: The Story of U.S. Catholic Education (1970).
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