I’m not Catholic, but I’m a believer in Catholic education. I began teaching at a Catholic school only weeks ago and the contrast is stark. The standard argument for private education only asks a skeptic to walk down the halls and compare. My public school smelled of marijuana and had near-daily fights; my new school has silent halls and students who listen.
There are socio-cultural explanations for these differences, though. Private schools are selective with students and often don’t accept any with IEPs. Such a comparison, then, is weak.
However, COVID exposes another, arguably more fundamental strength of Catholic schools; they’re free from public passions and union hegemony. With a mass closure of public schools across the country, many Catholic schools have made the now-radical decision to simply open.
My own school opened. Parents knew they could choose to go online at another school if they felt safer; teachers could too. Most stayed.
Various precautions keep us all safe. Hand sanitizer stations line the hallways, everyone wears a mask, desks are spread out, personal dividers are on the way, and students quarantine if they’ve had a confirmed exposure. A month in now, a few of our students have tested positive but each exposure came from outside our walls.
Before we opened, I was undecided. I didn’t want our school to cause a local outbreak or my students to suffer the pandemic. My mind changed once I threw the first pitch for recess kickball, discussed theology with sixth graders, and introduced a group of eighth-graders to Edgar Allan Poe. School is good for children; Catholic schools know this and so they opened.
Most other teachers know this reality too but the powers that be tied their hands. At Reason, Corey DeAngelis crunched the numbers and confirmed the suspicions of many conservatives. When he compared union power to the severity of the pandemic in various localities, he found that schools with powerful unions were the most likely to close, not the schools in cities with severe outbreaks.
The politics of it get even more ludicrous. Ten large unions joined the Democratic Socialists of America on a declaration to “Demand Safe Schools,” which eschews discussions of school safety to instead call for a moratorium on charter schools and the cancellation of rent.
In short, public schools have taken cues not from student needs or even pandemic concerns, but from prevailing ideologies and political pressure. Conversely, Catholic districts saw what they knew to be true, that education is good for children, and acted accordingly.
Their decision isn’t some blind ideological move either, devoid of scientific justification. The American Association of Pediatricians itself advised schools to open when possible, citing the academic, social, and emotional benefits of in-person education. Dr. Anthony Fauci advised that “bars close and schools open” while news continues to report that schools are not, in fact, “super spreaders.”
If enrollment numbers are an indication of public opinion, then the public’s view of Catholic education has improved after these decisions. The Superintendent of Catholic schools in Boston reported an almost 4,000 increase in enrollment—a happy reverse of their struggle last semester during quarantines. This increase is repeated in other districts across the country.
And there’s one fundamental reason that Catholic schools find themselves unbeholden to outside influence: they believe in the inherent worth of every child and the education that they deserve, that schools are more than crass economic training grounds but places to build character and educate children into their full potential.
These fundamental beliefs give them the wherewithal to confront public pressure. While I may not ascribe to every tenet of the Catholic faith, I believe in these fundamental truths about education and thereby the mission that flows from it.