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Representative David Schweikert - Vice Chairman

COVID-19, School Closures, and School Choice

COVID-19, School Closures, and School Choice

St. Francis Academy in Bally, Pennsylvania, opened its doors in 1743, before the original colonies declared independence from Great Britain. It educated students in the Berks County region of eastern Pennsylvania for 277 years until financial pressures, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, forced its closure in June. St. Francis is just one of 116 private schools to have ceased operations amidst the coronavirus pandemic, which has destabilized families that send their students to public, private, charter, and other schools across the nation.

Many of the closed schools had been fixtures in the community, with the average closed school opening 75 years ago. Unsurprisingly, the schools that have closed have also tended to serve a more-disadvantaged population; the average tuition at a school that closed during the pandemic is $7,040 as of August 25, 2020, well below the average private school tuition of $11,960. The students attending these schools were roughly 20% Hispanic and 15% Black, and the majority of schools closing were located in the Northeast.

Private School Closures by Level of Tuition and School Type
Among Schools Who Have Announced Closure Due to COVID-19

Purple dotted line is average private school tuition for 2018-19 ($11,960); orange is average Catholic school tuition ($7,670).
Source: NCES Digest Table 205.50 and CATO Institute COVID-19 tracker (as of August 25,2020). 

This is a continuation, and perhaps acceleration, of a longer trend for Catholic parochial schools, particularly in the northeast, which have seen a gradual increase in school closures over recent years. The total number of students enrolled in a parochial school fell by nearly half from 1995 to 2017. That has meant the loss of relatively-affordable options – at $7,670, the average cost of Catholic school tuition is lower than other types of private school. As the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s Mary Rice Hasson pointed out earlier this year, these closures threaten to hit the poor the hardest: "Catholic schools have an outstanding record of serving America’s urban poor, providing the most disadvantaged students with a ladder out of poverty and a springboard to success.”

Private School Tuition, 1988-2012
Average Private School Tuition Charged, by Type of School

Source: National Center for Education Statistics. Constant 2019 dollars (inflation calculated by using CPI-U.)

Fully two-thirds (73 out of 116) of the school closures in the wake of the pandemic were Catholic schools in the Northeast, with another fifteen in the South. Fifteen percent of school closures were non-Catholic private schools across the country. This list is not comprehensive; the data comes from a database maintained by Dr. Neal McCluskey of the CATO Institute, which relies on media reports of school closings. According to the New York Times, a total of 150 Catholic schools will not be re-opening their doors this fall, an increase of 50 percent from prior years, though some of those announced closures pre-date the pandemic.

Reported Private School Closings, 2020

Grey is no closures reported. Source: CATO Institute COVID-19 tracker.

Identifying the impact of the pandemic on school closures is not clear-cut. Some schools may have closed even without the additional pressures of the coronavirus on their finances, while other private schools have even seen a surge in applications and enrollment. Widely varying return-to-school policies in jurisdictions have left some parents seeking alternatives beyond the conventional public school district system. We won’t know the full impact of the pandemic on private schools until we have nationally-representative numbers on families’ choices. However, the ability of private schools to be more responsive to social distancing and other health and safety efforts may have made them more appealing to many parents, as McCluskey notes in a recent blog post, meaning that the pandemic’s toll on private education may be less severe than initially estimated.

These trends underscore the fact that as schools begin another year of instruction, policymakers should prioritize giving parents the flexibility to choose the educational option that is right for them. As the JEC described in “Multiple Choice,” its report on social capital and the education system, recognizing the different desires parents have for their children’s education should push us towards a system that provides parents authentic options while preserving a baseline of accountability – in short, towards a more pluralistic approach to education.

As AEI’s Frederick Hess noted at the beginning of the pandemic, “[Public school] districts will need federal support, but they can also count on a guaranteed stream of tax dollars going forward—regardless of when they open their doors. Thousands of small, irreplaceable private schools will not have that backstop.” As part of the ongoing response to the coronavirus crisis, discussions around education funding should include expanding allowable expenses in 529 savings plans, which currently include private school tuition, to include expenses like books, online tools, and tutoring to address these unprecedented circumstances. Also, as proposed in the Student Empower Act, co-sponsored by JEC Chairman Mike Lee, 529 savings plans should also be expanded to include tax deductibility for expenses related to homeschooling. More broadly, encouraging states to pursue a more pluralistic approach to education, as our December report suggests, could be part of the ongoing response to the pandemic – South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster, for example, is attempting to use funding from the CARES Act to pay for tuition for students interested in attending private schools. 

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to education in this pandemic, and the final impact, particularly on non-public schools, is not yet known. The loss of legacy institutions like St. Francis Academy can be a tremendous blow to parents and communities and should be a wake-up call to securing these critical institutions of civil society. The pandemic need not have the final word; it can be an opportunity to ensure more parents have more opportunity to seek out an education that is not only high-quality, but one that is provided in the context they deem best for their individual needs.

Patrick T. Brown
Senior Policy Advisor

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