The coronavirus poses a dire threat for Catholic schools — and offers an opportunity.
It’s been a long time since Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman came together as a fiery, electric duo to save an inner-city Catholic school in Leo McCarey’s 1945 The Bells of St. Mary’s — and boy, could Catholic education use some of that feistiness today.
With enrollment numbers for Catholic schools in freefall since the 1960s — dropping by a whopping 49 percent in the state of New York over the last 20 years alone — the coronavirus recession, which is impeding parents everywhere from paying tuition, feels like the final coup de grâce. The threat of the current fiscal crisis, materializing just as the sector already seemed to be taking its last, dying breaths, simply cannot be overstated.
What would Father O’Malley and Sister Mary say? Dial “O” for O’Malley?
They might suggest considering this crucible through the lens of faith, so that it might be transformed from a hopeless trial into an opportunity for refinement. A new product could emerge from the flames, tougher and holier than ever, and more equipped to meet demands where the public-education sector is failing.
At the moment, Catholic schools have the opportunity to address two key challenges where public schools are, in the view of many parents, dropping the ball. Catholic education’s response to these challenges — their ability to pick up the slack — could revitalize the entire sector right in the midst of its dark night of the soul.
First there’s the problem of woke curricula. The American Mind produced a powerful series of essays last week on the state of education, in many cases decrying the infiltration of woke narratives, identity politics, and critical race theory into America’s public schools, including its charters. As my colleague Max Eden has tirelessly pointed out, these strategies, which cast virtues such as “objectivity” and “intellectualization” as inherently “white supremacist,” are not only taking away time that could be spent learning academic subjects but also are bigoted in and of themselves; they suggest a need to lower expectations for certain groups of students based on the color of their skin.
Faced with this new reality that “there is no apolitical classroom,” it’s likely that many parents, leftists and conservatives alike, will seek alternatives. After all, they understand their children to be unique, unrepeatable beings, not collections of characteristics that can be understood reductively through race, and they’ll seek school systems that operate accordingly.
Herein lies an opportunity for Catholic education. Catholic schools, as Kathleen Porter-Magee has explained, do not dismiss objectivity as privileged excess. Instead, they are obligated to honor the objectivity of truth as a guiding principle. From this foundation, they aim to foster in students a natural reverence for the beauty and truth that underpin lessons in every academic subject.
Further, they operate from the understanding that every student is created in God’s image. With an implicit understanding that no student has more or less dignity than another because of the color of his skin, Catholic schools can ignore jargon-laden guidance from places such as the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Committee on Anti-Racism for the National Council on the Teaching of English (NCTE) and instead focus on the inherently “anti-racist” teachings of Jesus Christ.
Porter-Magee’s approach, which she detailed in a recent Manhattan Institute report, has proven effective. As superintendent of Partnership Schools, a Catholic-school network in New York City, she’s overcome immense odds to revitalize Catholic education for working-class students in the mostly non-white neighborhoods of Harlem and the Bronx.
Then there’s the question of actual classroom time. Aside from offering an alternative to woke classrooms, Catholic schools could rectify the other deficiency in American public education: in-person learning.
In light of the coronavirus, schools across the country are weighing whether to reopen their doors again in the fall or to persist with virtual, remote learning for the forthcoming school year. In the public sector, teachers’ unions often hold the deciding vote — and in many cases, they’re pushing aggressively to remain remote. In other districts, they’re using the debate to make threats and demands that have nothing to do with the pandemic.
For example, teachers in Los Angles recently joined calls to “defund the police” as a condition for returning to school. My colleague Dan DiSalvo forecasts that the unions will ask for increased pension funding, too, and as he put it, they “know how to play hardball.”
Most Catholic schools, by contrast, don’t have teachers’ unions. And they’re seeing an opportunity to attract new numbers and reverse previous enrollment declines. They understand that parents are desperate to find safe environments where their children can learn so that they can return to work and rectify economic losses that the shutdowns induced. Barring blanket bans on school reopening, like the one Governor Gavin Newsom enacted in California last week, many are committed to opening for in-person learning, hoping this pledge will attract new families, Catholic or not, who otherwise would have attended public school.
Jennifer Frey, an associate professor at the University of South Carolina, captured the dynamic in a series of tweets earlier this week. Lamenting that children in South Carolina can visit beaches, amusement parks, restaurants, and zoos but cannot attend public schools in person in the fall, she concluded, “I am scrambling to get my own children enrolled in the local Catholic schools, which have managed a workable plan for socially distanced face to face instruction five days a week.”
Catholic education’s intention to appeal to parents in positions such as Frey’s indicates an encouraging degree of shrewdness that the sector will need to survive. But there’s a spiritual logic behind the push, too.
Catholic educators view education not as a job but as a sacred vocation commissioned by Christ. They believe that if Christ is “the way and the truth and the life,” as John’s Gospel so mystically suggests, then to expound academic subjects is to provide students with the opportunity to encounter Christ. To help them refine language is to bring them nearer to the Word Incarnate. To unfold the intricacies of mathematical theorems and Renaissance paintings is to instill reverence for the mysterious beauty and order that is Christ’s entrance into our world.
With this in mind, it’s no surprise that many Catholic educators are eager to return to the classroom. A recent City Journal profile of schools operated by the Marianist Province of Meribah explained that the priests and brothers — who tirelessly sought solutions to continue educating students safely and effectively last school year amid COVID-19 shutdowns — followed in the footsteps of their order’s founder, Father William Joseph Chaminade, who found creative solutions to disseminate the faith under pain of death during the French Revolution.
In other words, the guillotine didn’t stop Catholic educators, and the coronavirus won’t either. Parents can rest assured knowing that Catholic educators will exhaust every option to provide a quality education to their children, and they won’t let political squabbles stand in the way.
This unique one-two punch that Catholic education can offer American parents — their resistance to woke curricula and their painstaking determination to return to the classroom — may be enough to boost some enrollment numbers, even despite a global pandemic and the accompanying economic recession. But the sector will need to avail itself of any Hail Mary passes that Washington can offer, too.
The first comes in the form of a recent Supreme Court decision. Thanks to the outcome in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, states no longer can prevent religious schools from benefiting from tax-credit scholarship programs. This is a win for school choice and educational pluralism, and it should mean that Catholic schools in previously restrictive states will see a financial boost very soon.
The second Hail Mary has yet to materialize but hopefully will soon. With a second round of CARES Act stimulus funding potentially on the line, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has signaled her intention to ensure that private and religious schools receive a portion of the pending federal aid. Education experts, including my colleague Ray Domanico, have been vocal about the importance of this aid reaching students at public and private schools alike.
At the end of the day, Catholic schools have been victims of a damaging misconception: the dangerously false idea that they serve only wealthy, white families. Much like St. Mary’s Academy in The Bells of St. Mary’s, where Ingrid Bergman’s optimistic, tenacious Sister Mary instilled a luminous reverence for learning among ragtag, working-class kids, Catholic schools today are a place where diverse students, regardless of background or aptitude, are challenged to pursue beauty and truth.
On a more practical level, Catholic schools offer families a safe, scholarly environment where children can learn while their parents are at work. That’s something that no American who lived through COVID-19 will take for granted again.
As roving, punch-drunk mobs seek to tear down statues of those Catholic saints and missionaries who risked their lives to disseminate Church teachings, Catholic educators must draw inspiration from figures such as Elizabeth Ann Seton, Junípero Serra, and William Joseph Chaminade. They must remember their sacred mission to disseminate beauty and truth — the luminosity of which can cast out poisonously reductive woke narratives. And they must seize this crucial moment to reclaim their once prominent place in the landscape of American K–12 education.
This piece originally appeared at National Review Online (paywall)
Nora Kenney is a press officer at the Manhattan Institute.
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