Tim Abram is the Associate Policy Director of Educational Opportunity for ExcelinEd.
The COVID-19 pandemic presents unprecedented challenges for the education community. Students and parents, many of whom lack access to broadband internet access and digital devices, are trying to adapt to online learning. Teachers are providing instruction in front of a webcam, instead of their students. And some students are facing the possibility of being unable to return to the schools they know.
Over the past two weeks, we have highlighted how private school closures could impact all students and how governors can utilize GEER funds to help prevent these schools from closing. The potential influx of private school students returning to school districts would be driven by two pandemic problems: private school closures and families’ inability to pay school tuition. Either way, private schools are at risk of closure unless leaders act. Utilizing just a portion of GEER funds to invest in private school scholarships, like Governor Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma recently considered, could help prevent a flood of students back into districts that are already projecting budget shortfalls. Some districts could feel considerable pain if governors do not safeguard against private school closures.
Let’s consider Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, one of the largest school districts in North Carolina. A recent report from the state’s Department of Administration shows nearly 18,530 students enrolled in private schools in Mecklenburg County. If just 5% (roughly 927) of those students return to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, it would cost the district an estimated $8 million. But if private schools close, a more realistic scenario is that far more students will return to the district—suddenly a 10% return rate costing $16 million seems like a modest projection. The combined threat of inadequate state revenue to fund currently enrolled students combined with a surge of private school students who have been paying into but not using their local schools could be disastrous.
The potential impact of this problem is more significant for school districts with larger percentages of private school students. For example, in Texas, private school students comprise 6% of the state’s total K-12 enrollment. Conversely, in Houston, private school students represent 20% of K-12 enrollment—tripling the state average. Seattle is in a similar position. Private school students only make up 8 percent of Washington State’s total K-12 enrollment, but they account for nearly a quarter of all K-12 students in Seattle. Although it is impossible to ascertain the precise impact that private school closures may have on school districts, the estimated impact alone presents a formidable challenge.
Moving forward, school districts face a daunting list of issues, from recovering lost learning time to developing contingency plans in case schools remain closed in the fall. Unfortunately, they’ll have to also consider the possibility of a sizable influx of students, without a sizable increase in revenue.