When private schools lose funding, low-income kids lose too

When private schools lose funding, low-income kids lose too
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The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a wrecking ball into American education. The media has focused on the disruptive shift to remote learning, sometimes with uneven results. Largely ignored however, has been the story unfolding at inner-city, tuition-based private schools. These vital non-profits — many faith-based — have done an excellent job educating low-income children during the crisis. Unfortunately, they have not been spared COVID-19’s assault. Many are in a truly precarious financial position and are in danger of closing. 

According to one count, some 77 schools nationwide have already announced their intention to close. A statewide survey of Florida private schools found 62 percent are concerned about their financial viability for the 2020-2021 school year and conversations with New York City private schools that educate children using scholarships from Children's Scholarship Fund (CSF), the organization I run, echo these worries. 

Unlike taxpayer-supported public schools, private schools rely on tuition — especially low-cost private schools without endowments. But the ability of families to pay tuition is in jeopardy during today's economic downturn. At the same time, other revenue streams for these schools — from the church, in the case of Catholic schools, and other philanthropies and fundraisers — have taken a hit as churches are closed, donations decreased and fundraisers cancelled. 

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Some schools benefited from the Paycheck Protection Program, enabling them to keep staff employed for a few months. In the face of resistance from public school officials, a new rule issued by the Department of Education also orders school districts to set aside a portion of their direct aid under the CARES Act for private schools. However, it’s not enough and the prognosis for the upcoming school year is not good. The Archdiocese of New York might even resort to closing some of its schools. 

This is very bad news for children whose families are already suffering from the pandemic’s economic impact. Consider Ruth Arias, a single mom from the Bronx, who works at an Amazon warehouse and contracted COVID-19 in March along with her three youngest children. Like thousands of other parents in New York, she relies partially on scholarships to send her children to a private, faith-based institution, where she enrolled her children after her son was bullied at his previous school. He thrived at his new school, regularly appearing on the honor roll and serving as captain of the basketball team.

After all they’ve been through, do Ruth Arias and her children need another disruption in their lives by potentially having their school close?  

Not only will students and their families suffer — everybody loses. A report of Catholic and other private schools, for example, show their graduates are more civically engaged, tolerant and committed to service. Another found students that attend these private institutions are less likely to be incarcerated. An open Catholic elementary school in a community is also associated with statistically decreased crime rates and much needed social capital and stability. 

Then there are the fiscal consequences on the broader educational system. Can the public system with all the challenges it faces in a regular school year bear the financial burden of an influx of children if a swath of private schools go under? 

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The cost to educate in private schools like the one Ruth Arias’s children attend tops out at $8,660, while many manage on less (tuitions are even lower than that, averaging $5,312). Every child who moves to a government run school because their school closes will cost taxpayers more than $20,000 in New York City — not a good outcome for them or for taxpayers. 

We cannot afford to lose these schools. Scholarship granting organizations like CSF and others, with the help of generous donors, will continue to provide support. Yet it is essential that future relief measures include these vital non-profits. Any direct relief extended to the education sector in the next federal stimulus bill should be directed by law to include all children, whether they go to private or government-run schools.

It is also time to consider a longer term solution, like passing the administration’s Education Freedom Scholarships, allowing a federal tax credit for businesses and individuals who voluntarily donate to scholarship granting organizations such as CSF. The recent landmark Supreme Court decision, Espinoza v. Montana, should make this easier to do. 

In our major urban centers, which are already suffering so much, private schools are a lifeline to the families they serve and a great benefit to their communities and larger cities. If nothing else, the stark fiscal reality of what it means if these schools close and these families are displaced should be more than persuasive. Can we really look a mother like Ruth Arias in the eye and tell her we’re not going to help? 

Darla M. Romfo is president and chief operating officer of the Children’s Scholarship Fund, a nonprofit that provides partial scholarships for low-income children in grades K-8 to go to the school that best meets their needs.