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#AskExcelinEd: How Saving Private Schools Will Uplift Students in a Time of Crisis

• Cara Candal

This week Governor Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma announced that he may use some of Oklahoma’s Governors Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEER) money to support students who are enrolled in private schools. He would do this by allocating part of the funds to support the Oklahoma Equal Educational Opportunity Scholarship.

If Governor Stitt decides to support the tax-credit scholarship, he will be setting a precedent that other governors could follow to equitably care for students and families impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Oklahoma Equal Educational Opportunity Scholarship serves students who live at or below 300% of free and reduced-priced lunch guidelines and students who are assigned to schools that the state has designated “in need of improvement.” This program—and others like it—serve some of our nation’s most vulnerable students and families, and strategic support from governors can help these families recover from this crisis.

How Would Private School Closures Affect Students and Districts?

Across the country, private schools serve millions of low- and middle-income students. Because of the pandemic, many parents will be unable to afford tuition, and philanthropists may be less able to support scholarships that help low and middle-income children access private schools. Private schools are at risk of closure unless leaders act. Saving the country’s private schools isn’t about supporting private education or the institutions that support them; it’s about uplifting students and families in times of crisis.

There are consequences when students switch schools. Mobile students are more likely to suffer from decreased academic performance and self-perception. One study found that children who switch schools even once between kindergarten and eighth grade are twice as likely to drop out of high school. If this isn’t scary enough, high student mobility impacts non-mobile students as well. States and school districts know that when schools have high a rate of students moving in and out of a school (known as a churn rate) teachers are less able to progress through curricula at a reasonable pace without leaving students behind. As a result, overall academic achievement suffers. Graduation rates decline, too.

If states don’t support private school students and families in the same way they support those who choose public schools, the reverberations of this failure will be felt far and wide.

Miami-Dade, one of the largest school districts in the country, provides an example. If just 10% of the students currently enrolled in private schools in Miami return to the district, Miami’s public schools would have to absorb 6,000+ new students. Schools would increase in size and classes might, too. Facilities could be strained. The state and city would have to find a combined $56 million dollars to support those students coming from private schools. Of course, these negative impacts pale in comparison the trauma that students will endure.

The COVID-19 pandemic has already shifted our economy, and it will uproot some families no matter what state leaders do. Children will feel the impacts of that instability acutely. Schools are a constant for children. For some, school is the only constant they know.

How Can Governors Prevent Private Schools from Closing?

There are specific steps governors could consider taking to ensure all students can remain in the school of their choice – even if they don’t choose a public school.

  1. Creatively use Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER funds) to serve all students, regardless of where they attend school. Keep the state’s most vulnerable students top of mind.
  2. Use some portion of GEER funds to support private schools with large concentrations of low- and middle-income students.
    • If the state has a tax-credit scholarship program, reserve some GEER funding for non-profit scholarship granting organizations.
    • If the state does not have a scholarship program, create a temporary scholarship fund designed to serve students who are no longer able to pay tuition at their school of choice.
    • If the state has an education scholarship account or voucher program, GEER funds can supplement these programs to help families and schools ensure continuity of learning.
    • Consider sending some portion of GEER funds to families who live at or below 300% of the poverty line to spend on allowable education expenses, including supplemental services, remote learning technologies, educational therapies and private school tuition.

Above all, remember that the time for action is now. Governors have a unique chance to be creative while acting swiftly and decisively to improve educational equity for all students.

About the author

Cara Candal

Cara Candal serves as Director of Educational Opportunity, focusing on private school choice, for ExcelinEd. Cara has spent the last 10 years working in education policy as a Senior Fellow with both Pioneer Institute and the Center for Education Reform. She was also a founding team member of the National Academy of Advanced Teacher Education (NAATE) and a research assistant professor at Boston University in the Department of Educational Leadership and Development. Cara has authored/edited more than 25 papers and three books on education policy. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from Indiana University, a Masters of Arts in Social Science from the University of Chicago and a Doctorate of Education from Boston University.