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Want to Help Public Schools? Give Private Schools COVID-19 Relief, Groups Declare

By Andrew Ujifusa — May 14, 2020 5 min read
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Want to prevent a crisis for public schools? There’s a way to do that while also providing critical pandemic relief for private schools, advocates for the private-school sector, school choice, and others are telling Capitol Hill.

In a Wednesday letter to congressional leaders, dozens of groups say lawmakers should create a new tax break based on private school tuition and a new education-focused tax credit, and these and related initiatives should get a 10 percent cut of future federal COVID-19 aid for public schools. These and other measures would help not just private schools and private school families, but also would also prevent “massive non-public school closures” and a subsequent “flood of students from private schools into districts that are already projecting major budget shortfalls.”

Part of what’s significant about this argument is that it’s not the first time advocates for private schools have made it during the coronavirus pandemic. (More on that below.)

Here are some of the key requests the groups make in their letter:

• “Temporary education tax credit.” Families paying private school tuition for the 2019 and 2020 tax years should get a 50 percent tax credit on that tuition.

• “Temporary charitable tax deduction.” Basically, this would allow families to count their private school tuition as a contribution to a nonprofit group for tax purposes. The letter notes that this provision could be classified as a deduction or a credit, and could be “means-tested” (somehow account for families’ relative income levels).

• “Immediate relief and longer-term tax credit policy.” This would involve tweaking the rules for 529 education savings plans to allow money to be used for home-schooling purposes, and modifying school choice legislation backed by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to create a one-time “emergency” grant for private school families.

The letter spends a good chunk of time making a financial-impact argument. Using a simple calculation of average private school tuition multiplied by the number of students in private schools, the groups estimate that if 20 percent of private school students switched from private to public schools over the summer due to private school closures, that would create a new, $15 billion cost burden for public schools.

“Private school closures would be devastating for families, students and communities. It will be equally devastating, financially, for public school districts,” says the letter, which was signed by several school choice groups, conservative state-level think tanks, and others. It was addressed to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other top lawmakers.

‘Untold Numbers’ of Students

Disagreements over private school vouchers sometimes feature arguments that public schools fear the competition a robust network of vouchers and other school choice policies would create for taxpayer resources; indeed, some school choice critics argue that such policies drain money away from local school districts. So it is notable that during coronavirus pandemic, private school advocates say traditional public schools should be afraid of a smaller private school footprint.

We put that dynamic to Tommy Schultz, a spokesman for the school choice advocacy group American Federation for Children (which DeVos used to lead), and Schultz pointed to “immediate overcrowding issues” if waves of private schools close. “If we had a more robust system that funded individual students and let them choose a diverse set of schooling options, we could have been far more resilient to adversities like this,” he said.

Debates about these points are not just idle ones, given DeVos’ support for vouchers and other formers of choice. DeVos issued guidance about two weeks ago that would require districts to set aside a much larger share of federal relief for private school students than many expected, and that directive has caused a significant backlash. The letter also supports that guidance.

When we asked a group that represents private schools about that guidance last week, the group told us that if private schools starved of tuition and philanthropic contributions because of pandemic closures were forced to shut their doors permanently, “untold numbers” of students would suddenly show up at public schools, creating a cascading crisis. That’s the message being repeated in this new lobbying push from private school groups and other supporters.

House Democrats want to nullify the guidance in their new COVID-19 relief bill, but we’ll have to wait and see if that effort is successful; in general, that legislation is a non-starter in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Don’t forget, of course, that public school advocates are pushing hard for additional aid themselves. And those folks don’t like the “microgrants” DeVos has proposed or that guidance from the secretary. They’re pointing to a looming collapse in state K-12 spending in particular as a major reason why Congress should provide more money for education and public schools specifically. But it’s far from a sure thing that lawmakers will satisfy their wishes.

Catholic schools in particular were struggling to stay afloat well before the pandemic, in part because of competition from charter schools in urban areas. In 2018, we reported that enrollment in Catholic schools had plunged from 5.2 million in the 1960s to 1.9 million, mirroring a broader decline in the proportion of all students enrolled in private schools over roughly the same time period. Some Catholic schools have decided to convert to charter schools, although that presents several challenges.

It’s worth watching how those schools fare during the economic struggles brought about by COVID-19. After several well-heeled private schools received federal grants generally intended to help small businesses keep employees on the payroll, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin responded by saying they should return the money.

Read the full letter below: