Preserving a Critical National Asset: America's Disadvantaged Students and the Crisis in Faith-Based Urban Schools
The White House Domestic Policy Council -- September 2008

This report chronicles the history of faith-based K-12 education in America, describes the important place held by these schools in the K-12 education landscape—particularly their service of low-income urban populations—and provides explanations for their rapid disappearance. The report also proposes a variety of potential solutions to the problem, both governmental and nongovernmental, so these schools can survive and continue educating historically underserved populations.

Full Report: Download files PDF (852K)


On April 24, 2008, President George W. Bush convened in Washington, D.C., a broad array of education and community stakeholders to address a deeply troubling but vastly under-reported phenomenon limiting the education options available to low-income urban families: the rapid disappearance of faith-based schools in America’s cities.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, between the 1999–2000 and 2005–06 school years, the K–12 faith-based education sector lost nearly 1,200 schools and nearly 425,000 students. This is a cause for national concern for a number of important reasons. First, for generations, these schools have played an invaluable role in America’s cities. They are part of our Nation’s proud story of religious freedom and tolerance, community development, immigration and assimilation, academic achievement, upward mobility, and more. To lose these schools is to lose a positive, central character in the narrative of urban America.

More importantly, the disappearance of these schools is having a tragic impact on many of our most disadvantaged families. For many urban parents, the moral grounding, community ethic, safe and structured environment, and academic rigor of faith-based schools are invaluable to their children. These qualities are especially prized because of the unfortunate alternatives many of these children and families face.

The struggles of urban public schools are well known and long-standing. The underserved children of America’s cities deserve access to high-performing educational options. The disappearance of urban faith-based schools— with their strong record of serving the disadvantaged—frustrates the crucial national effort to make educational excellence available to every child.

Experience indicates that the contributions of these schools extend far beyond the classroom. A strong education institution can stabilize a community. It can attract new families and jobs. It can provide safety and hope in areas where both are in short supply. Regrettably, the inverse is also true. In addition to hurting students, the loss of a strong school in an underserved community can destabilize fragile social networks, depress job creation and economic development, and exacerbate the collective sense of despair resulting from scarce community resources and opportunities.

As serious and worrisome as this problem is, there is no villain in the story. No one purposely set about to cause an education crisis. The root causes are several and diffuse—including barriers to government aid, demographic shifts, and staffing changes—and they only begin to corrode urban faith-based schools when combined. However, these factors have, in the end, chipped away at a pillar of American K–12 education. To leave this grave and mounting challenge unaddressed would be irresponsible. The futures of too many young lives and distressed communities are at stake.

Fortunately, this problem is solvable. America’s institutions—from the Federal, State, and local governments to businesses and non-profits to universities and community-based organizations—have it in their power to turn the tide. This Administration has taken the lead, raising the public awareness of this crisis through the White House Summit on Inner-City Children and Faith-Based Schools and developing and supporting promising initiatives, including Promise Scholarships, Opportunity Scholarships, Pell Grants for Kids, and the Washington, D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.

However, if we are to succeed in protecting these valuable education options, more must be done. A sustained collaborative effort by educators, elected officials, philanthropists, neighborhood leaders, and many others will be required. America’s faith-based urban schools—so prized by so many families—are well worth this effort. Their preservation will greatly benefit countless disadvantaged students, numerous underserved communities, and as a result, our Nation at large.

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Last Modified: 10/03/2008