Across the country, private schools are in existential trouble thanks to covid-19. We are in danger of losing something precious: the only institutions able to provide something markedly different from government-controlled K-12 schooling. If not done right, government aid threatens to make matters even worse.
Private schools are not typically rich. While "private school" may conjure images of posh institutions, most private schools are modestly priced with no endowments. For some perspective, public schools spend more than $15,000 per pupil, while the average Catholic school charges only around $8,000, and other religious schools around $10,000.
Tuition at religious schools typically covers 50 percent to 70 percent of average educational costs. Schools often make up the difference with fundraisers and parish subsidies. But this year, spring fundraisers were canceled or curtailed by law, as were in-person worship services where donations are collected.
Nationwide, at a minimum, 107 private schools have announced that they will shut their doors permanently, at least in part due to the crisis, as of the time of this writing.
The schools closing tend to be lower cost and disproportionately the choice of African American families. The average tuition for closing schools nationally is about $7,000, and African American kids make up more than 15 percent of total enrollment. African Americans are about 13 percent of the overall population.
Any federal relief should not discriminate against private schools, which are already at a massive funding disadvantage compared to public schools. While the Paycheck Protection Program fit this bill, making private schools as eligible as any other for-profit or nonprofit organization, covid-19 education relief has not been fully accessible to private schools.
Washington has sent $30.75 billion to states for education, with the money to be split between K-12 and higher education, and including about $3 billion at the discretion of governors. Almost all of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund is going to public schools, which are supposed to share the money in the form of services and material.
As the federal government debates another relief package, if it does one it should be simple: Allocate a set amount per student and let it follow kids. That seems to be what the Trump administration is contemplating: Allocate 10 percent of K-12 relief funding--the proportion of all students who are in private schools--for private school scholarships.
To save these crucial schools in the long run, state and local taxpayer funding must no longer be sent directly to public schools. It should follow kids based on what their parents, who know them best, select.
Patrick Wolf is a distinguished professor at the University of Arkansas and Neal McCluskey directs the Cato Institute's Center for Educational Freedom.