Private schools rev up request for federal relief

Ron Matus

Parents at the Academy of Our Lady of Peace in New Providence, N.J., organized to raise money to reopen the elementary school after it and seven other Roman Catholic schools in the Newark area were slated for permanent closure.

The next round of pandemic relief funding for K-12 education should set aside 10% to help private school parents and students, in line with the proportion of private school students across America, say more than 150 private school and school choice groups in a new letter to Congressional leaders.

More specifically, the groups argue that private schools reeling from the challenges of distance learning and declining enrollment should get indirect assistance from emergency tuition grants for low-income and middle-class families, and from creation of a federal tax credit program for scholarship funds.

“With many families suddenly facing unexpected and immense financial challenges with income loss, they may not be able to make required tuition payments,” the groups wrote. “We believe that families seeking the best education opportunities for their children, especially those facing difficulties due to COVID-19, should be supported.”

The letter was signed by 156 groups, including Step Up For Students, the nonprofit scholarship funding organization that hosts this blog. That’s up from 48 private school and school choice groups that made a similar pitch six weeks ago. And it comes as Congress considers the next round of federal relief, including potentially tens of billions of additional dollars for K-12 education.

To date, little federal relief for K-12 education has offered meaningful help to private schools, despite increasingly anxious stories about their plight. In coming months, more than 100 Catholic schools are expected to close, and hundreds if not thousands of other private schools are likely to be hurt too. Growing numbers of parents are telling private schools they won’t be able to afford tuition in the fall, and surveys suggest many private schools fear the recession and continued closure of brick-and-mortar operations could bring their demise.

Public school traditionalists have pushed back against efforts to devote even a slightly bigger share of current relief to private schools. But the letter echoes the argument made by choice advocates (like here and here), that helping private schools will by extension help hard-hit public schools.

If 20% of private school students end up enrolling in public schools, the letter says, taxpayers would have to find another $15 billion to absorb them. Given other operational and logistical challenges, that flood would arguably come at the worst possible time. 

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