- - Thursday, May 28, 2020

Every child deserves access to an excellent education. It should not matter what a student looks like, where she or he lives or what her or his parents do for a living. It may be in a traditional public school like the one my children attended or a charter, choice, private, virtual or home school that is right for their family.

On Wednesday, I spoke to supporters of quality education in one of the hardest-hit areas in America: New York City. The nonprofit Champions for Quality Education supports more than 32,000 students in 121 under-resourced Catholic elementary schools in the Archdiocese of New York. Of the students they serve, 70 percent live near or below the federal poverty line. Additionally, 28 percent are not Catholic, and 58 percent are minority students. The values and the education they receive in these schools are critical to their success.

The shutdown of schools in New York and across the country has been a real challenge for students, parents and teachers. It is particularly difficult for private schools that do not have the same funding streams as public schools. A nationwide survey of private schools from Ed Choice showed that 65 percent of the leaders of the schools said they were “extremely” or “very” worried about their families struggling financially. Fifty-one percent said they were “extremely” or “very” worried about losing enrollment next year.

That is true all over the country. According to the nation’s most significant scholarship-granting organization, Step Up for Students in Florida, 73 percent of the leaders of the 634 Florida private schools who responded to a survey said they are experiencing declines in re-enrollment for the fall. On top of that, many parents who are not using a tax-credit scholarship said they might not be able to pay tuition next year. And 58 percent said what they hear from parents has them worried about their viability for the coming school year.

Catholic schools face some of the most considerable challenges during this time, as so many are located in economically challenged areas and many were facing financial concerns before schools were shut down for the pandemic. According to the National Catholic Education Association, at least 100 schools are expected to not reopen in the fall. That number is much higher as the leaders of other schools are scrambling to find alternatives for the fall semester.

Leaders in archdioceses all across the country have announced school closures, including in California, Massachusetts, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Texas. Even the alma mater of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, leaders of the Institute of Notre Dame in Baltimore, have announced they are closing. It is the oldest Catholic girls’ high school in Maryland.

The postponement of the spring semester at nearly every school in the country, combined with the significant financial stress for so many American families, is a one-two punch to many private schools — particularly those serving underprivileged populations. We saw signs of this after the last recession. According to the National Council of Economic Statistics (NCES), total enrollment in private elementary and secondary schools dropped by 421,720 students from the fall of 2007 to the fall of 2009. It could be far worse after this crisis.

In addition to the genuine concerns about students losing out on values-formation and quality education at these private schools, this is also a challenging issue for public schools. The latest data available from the NCES shows that there are 5.7 million students enrolled in private schools. If just 20 percent of the students currently in private schools had to go to public schools, it would cost states and school districts some $15 billion.

With a significant number of students coming from low-income families, it is increasingly likely that many will not be able to afford to keep their children in private schools. U.S. Census data shows that about 30 percent of students in private schools come from families earning less than $75,000 each year.

Unless they receive some assistance from a voucher, scholarship or tax credit, many of these families will not be able to afford to keep their children in the school of their choice. Not only is this bad for the students and their families, but it will also be a significant financial burden on the taxpayers when they shift to public schools.

The best approach is to continue to provide opportunities or parents to pick the school of their choice. Now is the time to keep support through vouchers, scholarships and tax credits. It is also the time for other states and jurisdictions to consider adopting similar programs. We need to remind policy-makers that this is important for both the education these students receive and the relief it provides to public schools.

Today, more than ever, every child deserves access to an excellent education.

• Scott Walker was the 45th governor of Wisconsin. You can contact him at swalker@washingtontimes.com or follow him @ScottWalker.

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