The question of whether parents can resort to private options when the teachers unions force public schools into closures due to the pandemic may be decided by courts in a county outside Washington. It happens to be where members of the bureaucracy of the federal government and of the national media reside and enroll their kids in schools.
This is Montgomery County, which leans hard left. Because local officials are so evidently beholden to the teachers unions, it is stuck in a battle of national implications with Maryland Governor Larry Hogan. The moderate Republican overrode an attempt to force private and parochial schools to close. Hogan effectively had no choice since parents had taken to social media to denounce what local officials had done last week.
Health Commissioner Travis Gayles kicked off the furor when he issued an order saying that private schools could not offer in person instruction until the start of October. This order notably came the day after public schools qualify for state aid based on their enrollment. Gayles said the data shows that in person instruction is safe for students or teachers.
However, it was clear to parents that the move owed nothing to science or medicine, but a lot to politics and money, not to mention the power of the teachers unions. It was so transparently authoritative that it unleashed the backlash by indignant parents who took action in social media groups that would attract thousands of followers in a matter of hours.
Hogan first issued a strong statement condemning the decision. Then he overrode the county with an order of his own, effectively allowing private schools to reopen. The parents, pastors, rabbis, and principals for private schools cheered. But Gayles issued another order saying that private and parochial schools had to stay closed for all of September.
It makes no sense as you can do almost anything in Montgomery County. You can eat inside a restaurant, get your nails done at the salon, lift some weights at the gym, and send your child to daycare. Montgomery County has also had daily coronavirus infection rates below the state average for Maryland. That did not stop local officials from announcing that it would run its emergency online learning until the end of January.
Many private schools, by contrast, have been gearing up for at least some in person instruction, purchasing air filtration systems and finalizing their reopening plans. They were following the federal guidelines, working with public health experts, and implementing strict safety measures. They had been meticulously detailing their class schedules for students. They were spending resources on professional cleaning services and also wanted to require masks, social distancing, and temperature checks.
But local officials had refused to even look at their reopening plans. Why? Private schools across the United States that will start in person or with a hybrid online option have had increases in enrollment. Private schools in Ohio and North Carolina have waitlists, applications to the school choice program in North Carolina have risen, and enrollment inquiries for private schools across the Washington region have also increased.
Many families want in person instruction. Private schools are responding. Public schools in Montgomery County, meanwhile, have seen a dramatic decline in enrollment over the last several months. Superintendent Jack Smith said the district has enrolled only 300 new students this summer, down from the 2,500 new students that had been expected.
A permanent increase in enrollment in private schools, if they are allowed to run while public schools keep their doors closed, would also portend a permanent loss of revenue for district schools. The teachers unions have been vociferous on this. At a meeting on reopening schools, the teachers unions representative “tore into the district” for its proposal.
Gayles called a meeting with private and parochial school administrators, and had asked them to stay closed until the start of October. Hogan took action, but now that Gayles has doubled down, it may be up to courts to decide. It is obvious that many local officials are bowing to the powerful teachers unions, placing politics above both the health and education of students. This will be one decision with national implications.
This piece originally appeared in The Hill on 8/07/20