All schools should re-open and Congress can help

The effort by teacher unions and others to keep schools from reopening for in-person instruction this month is a new complicating factor in the survival of many non-public schools.

To survive the impact of the coronavirus, non-public schools are seeking federal financial support as part of the next Covid legislation under consideration by Congress.

New legislation introduced in the U.S. Senate last month would provide nearly $70 billion for K-12 education, including proportionate funding for children in non-public schools. This level of support should be passed now to enable all public and non-public schools to re-open safely for students and teachers. Amazingly, Senate Democrats, led by New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, voted against this bill by refusing to allow it to proceed to a final vote.

There remains a political stalemate over Covid relief funding for education and other areas. In fact, many in Congress view providing a financial bailout for the U.S. Post Office as a higher priority than the educational needs of children. Postal workers are essential and deserve high praise for continuing to operate during coronavirus. But, it is the education of children that hangs in the balance in both public and non-public schools.

State and local taxes, and federal funding on an annual basis support public schools, including their teachers and other employees, and have done so throughout the Covid public health emergency. They will outlast the coronavirus. Non-public schools, by contrast, need enough tuition-paying families to sustain themselves, but the Covid crisis has been economically devastating.

The non-public school sector educates more than 5 million students, provides education options for families, enhances the free exercise of religion, and obviates the need for billions of dollars in added costs to public school taxpayers.

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau data indicates at least 60 percent of non-public school students are from low-income, working class or middle-income families.

Non-public schools, like other sectors in the private economy, have suffered economically during the Covid-19 pandemic since most of their children come from non-wealthy families. As such, re-enrollments for the upcoming school year are down.

Non-public schools also mitigate inequality in society, and they could do more – if more politicians supported the expansion of school choice legislation, especially to benefit children from lower-income households.

State based school choice programs and privately funded K-12 scholarship funds throughout the country equip well more than 500,000 students from lower-income households to attend private schools they otherwise could not afford. However, these educational opportunities provided by non-public schools are in greater jeopardy, both by the coronavirus, and the political stalemate in Washington.

Most non-public schools, like restaurants and hospitality sectors, operate on narrow revenue margins. The loss of a small percentage of enrollment (i.e., customers) over a sustained period can devastate their finances and result in closure and lost middle class jobs.

Since last spring, at the outbreak of the pandemic and economic shutdown, at least 113 nonpublic schools have closed permanently since the pandemic, most of which were Catholic schools. Hundreds more are in economic jeopardy, absent assistance from Washington.

The closure of non-public schools would have a wide ripple effect, including the loss of private sector jobs, higher public school costs, and the loss of educational diversity and opportunity for young people. It does not have to be this way.

Non-public schools also could be used to a greater extent to mitigate inequality in society by enabling the expansion of school choice to more economically disadvantaged children. There is no legal barrier to doing this, with the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent Espinoza ruling.

Last month, Senators Tim Scott and Lamar Alexander introduced the School Choice Now Act that would provide federal tax incentives to expand K-12 scholarship opportunities for students to attend schools of the parents’ choice.

Tragically, not only do teacher unions oppose opportunity for children to access non-public schools through choice programs, now many of them are denying opportunity to children in there own public schools and threating to go on strike. Rather than exacerbating the Covid problem, the unions, like all stakeholders, should be part of the solution to re-open schools and educate all children safely.

Federal Covid relief for public and non-public schools and the School Choice Now Act are especially vital at this moment to put our children’s educational needs first and foremost as we work through as a nation to prevail over coronavirus.

We have suffered together as a nation, and we should work together to educate all our children. Congress can enable this outcome by passing this Covid funding for public and non-public schools and expanding equality and opportunity with school choice.

Peter Murphy is vice president of the Invest in Education Coalition (Twitter: @PeterMurphy26).

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