Watch the video for my monologue, followed by an interview with Mark Hemingway, of Real Clear Politics and The Federalist, on the dangers to — and future of — parochial education.
It’s peak fall in Allentown, a city of 120,0000 people, nestled in the Lehigh Valley just over an hour north of Philadelphia. The weather’s the same as it’s been in the past, but a lot has changed over the years.
The iconic Bethlehem Steel mill stands idle — a towering and harshly beautiful structure that poured the beams that built Manhattan, and the ships that defeated the Axis. Today, it’s a tourist attraction and place for local concerts — a monument to an America gone by, repurposed for a changing time.
Bethlehem Steel and the surrounding towns were the victims of a bipartisan plan to globalize the American economy; a plan that by the early 2000s had made Wall Street, the Waltons, and others rich beyond imagination — but left a lot of Americans by the wayside.
That’s one thing different this year, but it’s not all: Search the Lehigh Valley papers and you’ll find Catholic school after Catholic school closing down. In March 2018, Our Lady Help of Christians in Allentown closed its doors. In June 2020, Sacred Heart School in Bath and St. Francis Academy in Bally shut down. And last May, Trinity Academy in Shenandoah became the latest victim. The local paper, The Morning Call, reads like an extended obituary section — a graveyard of Catholic schools as well as literal Catholics.
But where there is death, there is also new life — although perhaps not the life we’d like to see.
Charter schools are booming in Pennsylvania. Thanks in part to the lockdowns, enrollment at charters rose by 25,000 last year; about 10 percent of all children in the state are enrolled in them. There are at least 14 charter schools in the Lehigh Valley region so far. Just a year ago, the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools got a $30 million federal grant and announced its intent to build more schools throughout the state.
For much of this part of Pennsylvania, Catholicism is an identity. Traveling through these towns and cities before 2020’s election, we met young bartenders who voted Catholic, retirees drinking a morning beer while discussing Sunday’s homily, and a cigar-chomping landlord proudly repping the Knights of Columbus in a pool hall.
In towns like these, parochial schools were a lynchpin, anchoring families in their community and children in tradition. Losing them is disastrous; you can’t just replace them with some charter school.
Often, in fact, the arrival of a charter is the death knell for a parochial school. In New York state, a 2012 study found that for every charter school that opened, a parochial school closed. As with Allentown, a lot is at play — changing economies mean changing populations and fortunes; but this is also a change wrought with the assistance of the Republican Party.
The education reform movement began with a focus on vouchers, rising up in the 1990s as parents and activists sought out alternatives to long-declining public schools.
Remember vouchers? The idea behind those is simple: Instead of funneling education dollars to a school, funnel them to parents. Let a mother and father take their child’s money and spend it on the education they want — not the one the government says their child has to accept.
It was a good idea, but faced stiff opposition from the secular left, which, aside from backing their supporters in the teachers union, is fanatically devoted to banishing God from public life — and so actively opposed to Christian education. However, as support grew for breaking away from a corrupt and terrible public school system during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama years (as seen in bipartisan No Child Left Behind legislation), left-wing Democrats like Sen. Corey Booker jumped on the bandwagon.
The reinforcements came at a price: Parochial schools were a sticking point for this new alliance, and when Democrats demanded they be removed, Republican Inc. — eager as always to sell out the social conservatives — was happy to oblige. Now, GOP politicians realized, they could hit the teachers unions in their wallets and give parents a few more options — all without being attacked as “Bible thumpers.”
So parochial schools were banished to the wilderness, the voucher movement was forgotten, the charter school movement rose up in its place — and conservatives drank from the poisoned chalice.
“For over a century,” Sean Kennedy wrote in City Journal in 2012, “Catholic schools thrived without government dollars because they offered high-quality education and religious instruction to generations of immigrants and their children, often at low cost.”
“Priests and nuns,” Kennedy continued, “staffed the schools that Catholic parishioners subsidized. As American public education became increasingly captured by fads, Catholic schools stood as a refuge, offering strict academic standards and discipline.”
Charter schools are very different: Some of them have high test scores — or at least higher than the publics they compete with — but they aren’t run by a church. Instead, they’re run by a private corporation, but still paid for with taxpayer dollars.
That means they’re banned from promoting religion, aside from the woke one currently taught in all our public schools. Many of them will eagerly teach that religion, because for a private corporation, turning a profit is often what matters most.
The Self-Defeating Victory
This is the kind of mutilated, self-defeating “victory” we see on the right far too often. Democratic teachers unions were weakened, and public school bureaucrats faced some small level of competition.
Isn’t that wonderful, you might be thinking — we received plenty of esteem and lots of friendship. But in the big picture, parents and their children are still at the mercy of a government bureaucracy and bubble-sheet technocrats. They will still be part of the same system that now spews out critical race theory, transgender ideology, and so on. Charter schools may be an alternative to the public school blob, but they don’t answer to parents — they answer to whoever supplies the cash, and that’s still the government.
This isn’t just some slippery slope warning; this is already happening. In Nevada, a student has sued the charter school Democracy Prep for giving him a failing grade in a “Sociology of Change” course because he wouldn’t publicly confess his white privilege. The same class taught that racism is something “white people do to people of color” and said that “reverse racism doesn’t exist.”
Stuff like this is all over the country now.
Still, for a lot of parents, the choice is simple: They know public schools are poisonous, and now they have an alternative that doesn’t cost them a dime in tuition. And so, charter schools are booming, while parochial schools are slowly withering and dying.
The Price of a Free Education Is Your Child’s Faith
From a strictly education-results-based perspective, this bait and switch poses a problem. We’ve taken a healthy and thriving, century-old education system that was built and sustained entirely by private society and replaced it with a parallel school system reliant on government and paid for with billions of taxpayer dollars — and all the left-wing propaganda these funds nearly ensure.
But it’s not just the propaganda, either; this bait and switch undermines religious morality. A November poll by the Catholic news site Pillar found that only 25 percent of adults who were born into Catholic families and attended public high schools still kept their religious obligations, attending weekly Mass. Among those who attended Catholic high schools, however, the number was 36 percent.
Neither number is stellar, but in an increasingly secular society, any religiously observant adult is an ally in saving our country; and every soul saved is a soul saved.
Even if you aren’t Christian, you can understand the effects this change has on the neighborly bonds that create and maintain our communities — the bonds that already strain to hold together hurting communities across the United States.
Republicans who have supported the charter school movement — as I did until recently, when I began to understand the damage it was causing — are well-meaning but misguided. Their energy for reform is there, but needs to be redirected. And the fix isn’t as simple as making parochial schools eligible for public funding, as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has called for as recently as this month.
Just as with the mob, government money comes at a price, so the answer to our public schools — and choices for children of all religions — is going to have to come from somewhere different: It’s going to have to come from us.