[Editor’s Note: Tim Carney is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the senior political columnist at the Washington Examiner. He is the author of Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse and two earlier books, Obamanomics and The Big Ripoff. His articles have appeared at the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, National Review, and Reason Magazine. He has appeared on Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, and PBS Newshour. He and his wife raise six children and two dogs in the Washington, D.C., area. He spoke to Charles Camosy about Catholic schools, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.]
Camosy: Can you say a bit about your personal experience, and that of your family, with Catholic education?
Carney: We send all six kids to Catholic schools. The younger three will be at our parish school, and the older three will be at independent all-boys and all-girls schools. We see these schools as not merely sources of K-12 education, but as hubs of community and places to help form our children into the men and women we want them to be. We basically spend all of our money on schooling our children, because forming their souls in this time of their life is our single greatest task as parents.
Our lives – worship, study, our friends, our kids’ friends, adult sports, youth sports, volunteer work, our human-level safety net – all revolve around our three Catholic schools.
Catholic schools, it seems to me, are facing what I’ve called a “wicked problem” about whether to reopen or not. Do you agree with that assessment or do you have a different view?
Many Catholic schools have decided they cannot safely reopen. The schools I know best have reviewed what’s possible, spent tons of money and time, consulted with official guidelines and experts in the community, and came up with a plan to teach kids safely while allowing parents to keep children at home. This effort is what we expect of our schools, which are institutions run by women and men who feel it their calling–not merely their job–to educate children.
There seems to be a pretty fierce debate about “what science says” when it comes to schools reopening. And while the weighing of values, informed by scientific data, is what will ultimately be the basis of any decision, this is very important data to get. What’s your sense of the data at this point?
The first thing to remember is that there are risks on both sides. Sending children and teachers to school certainly introduces a risk of COVID spread at school, and depriving kids of in-person schooling also has risks. The American Academy of Pediatrics says children suffer from missing school.
And science says that prolonged, indoor, crowded environments with inadequate ventilation can be dangerous. That’s why schools I know were upgrading their ventilation, installing plexiglass shields, accommodating spacing, requiring masks, and taking countless other efforts to make schooling safe. You can’t point to a summer camp in Michigan or schools in Israel that rejected masks and/or adequate spacing in order to say no school should be allowed to open.
If I have understood the situation correctly, your county in Maryland has, remarkably, moved to close all schools, including Catholic and other private schools. Can you say more about what is happening here and what the effects might be?
An unelected bureaucrat in Montgomery County has waved away CDC and state guidance on schools in order to bar all non-public schools from opening in the fall. This is an atrocious overreach. Again, many schools – including all public schools – had already decided to go all virtual. Others spent countless hours and thousands of dollars to make school safe. The county – where test positivity is way below the 5 percent threshold set by the CDC – refused to provide its own guidance or even look at schools’ plans. Instead, on a Friday night, they announced they were taking away the rights of non-public schools.
Governor Larry Hogan has the power to overrule the County. He ought to. [Editor’s Note: Hogan did overrule the county after this interview was conducted.]
Children will learn a lot less in virtual schooling than in-person. Just because that was going to happen to some students doesn’t mean an unelected health bureaucrat should force that upon all students. Communities – Jewish, Catholic, et cetera – are often anchored by their schools. Stripping away their physical presence weakens communities, which mostly hurts the single moms, the poor, and the working class. (This is what I wrote about in Alienated America).
And some religious and private schools will close down because some parents will pull their children, no longer able to justify the tuition payments.
What would you say to skeptics who think Catholic schools are only opening to save themselves?
It’s a perverse attack. In a place with 3.1 percent test positivity like Montgomery County, you could argue that public schools are only closing without reflection because they see themselves as government monopolies immune to accountability from the people they’re supposed to serve. Yet in the broader area, public school closures led some parents to opt for private school, including Catholic school. That may be why the county government had to shut down non-publics.
Most teachers, public and private, love their job and see it as a calling. I think teachers’ unions are more mercenary and transactional, though.
Catholic schools, although most have less money per pupil than public schools do, are smaller and often more flexible than public schools, and thus better to adapt. And yes, when the government bars the doors of Catholic schoolhouses, it raises the risk that Catholic schools will fail.
One rabbi I spoke to made a great point that applies to Catholic education too. “Judaism is not a subject,” the rabbi told me. “It’s a way of life, and when you can have a role model who lives that, that’s what you want” from a school. “And you can’t get that virtually.”
Is this happening anywhere else around the country? Or at risk of happening? Do you have advice for those who want to resist and put the decisions in the hands of those running Catholic schools–and not the hands of those who have political or other reasons for not caring (or even desiring) that Catholic schools fail?
I think Catholic schools need to fight against government efforts to shut them down arbitrarily – even if we’re going to make our own decision to go virtual if conditions demand. The next step after a county willy-nilly closing religious schools is a county invoking health reasons to force us to abolish our teachings on sexuality, or single-sex education.
Catholic schools are a target and will continue to be a target. We need to make sure we’re not a soft target.