These are troubling times for private schools. The COVID-19 pandemic has already forced the closure of 57 private schools across the country and displaced over 7,900 students. And the list is growing.
Unfortunately, when we say private schools, most of us think of small classes, leafy campuses and high tuition. We’re not sounding the alarm for the elite learning centers. Those schools can survive the shock of coronavirus.
However, that’s an incomplete picture of private education. In 2011-12, Bellwether Education reported (the latest year national data was available) 60 percent of private schools charged less than $6,000 a year in tuition. In 2017-18, Roman Catholic K-8 schools, the largest percentage of private schools, charged an average of $4,841 for tuition.
However, if a good number of small private schools close, the implications – be they financial, social or educational – will reverberate through North Carolina communities for a long time.
The Tar Heel state’s 769 private schools enroll about 102,400 students. One question that hangs over the reopening of schools this fall is: How many private school students will transfer to public schools because of the economic fallout from the coronavirus shutdown?
Recently, EdChoice.org estimated that a 10 percent migration of private school students to public schools in North Carolina would cost the state $63.9 million. If you include local county expenses, costs increase to $90.6 million. Likewise, a migration of 30 percent of private school students to public schools would cost the state $191.9 million. Adding in local costs, the total balloons to $272.0 million.
A recent survey of independent schools in North Carolina found almost half of the private schools surveyed expect enrollment declines of between 5-10 percent in the coming academic year as a result of COVID-related issues.
To help provide relief for families impacted by coronavirus, Rep. Rob Bryan (R-Mecklenburg) recently introduced Senate Bill 857. The bill provides eligible families a one-time $2,500 tax credit, per child, to help those who have children in private schools. In addition, the bill also provides a tax credit of up to $500 per child for eligible families that home school. Tax credits cannot exceed $7,500 for private school families or $1,500 for home school families.
To be eligible, married taxpayers must have a household income of $150,000 or less; or a single taxpayer of $75,000 or less. Taxpayers would also have had to receive a federal stimulus check and experienced a decline in adjusted gross income of 10 percent or more during the recent economic shutdown. Families whose children are recipients of the Opportunity Scholarship, Disabilities Grant, or Personal Education Savings Account are not eligible to apply.
The opposition of anti-school choice advocates to the legislation reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of school finances and coronavirus relief.
Congress did the right thing in distributing aid to those impacted by the government shutdown. Since government authored the hardship, it bears a responsibility for helping families and children impacted by its policies — no matter where the children attend school. The aid represents a lifeline to those whose lives have been impacted by a government shutdown, ordered in the name of public health.
S-857 can be part of that solution. The legislation is a one-time provision and it only helps families whose children attend private schools or home schools; it also helps the public schools. While the tax credit represents a loss in state revenue, that must be balanced against the savings the measure could generate.
The approximately 102,000 students enrolled in private schools in North Carolina are students that don’t have to be educated in the public schools. According to the North Carolina Statistical Profile, in 2018-19, North Carolina spent an average of $6,479 per pupil to educate a child in the public schools. If you included local per-pupil funding ($2,410), state and local funding per student rises to $8,889.
Government has properly distributed millions in funding to help the public schools weather the coronavirus pandemic. However, the same crisis continues to threaten hundreds of small private schools in North Carolina and the communities they serve.
S-857 provides sensible, targeted tax relief for needy families and limits the cost of additional migration to the public schools. For these reasons, it deserves the support of lawmakers, families and educators.
Bob Luebke is Director of Policy for the Civitas Institute, a conservative think tank based in Raleigh, North Carolina. This article appeared on the opinion page of the Fayetteville Observer on June 18,2020