September 2, 2020 12:01PM

Private Schools: COVID Enrollment Winners or Losers?

As you’d expect with the arrival of a new school year, increasingly people have been asking me how things are looking for private schools. Are they getting clobbered, as I feared they might back in the early lockdown days, or gaining students, as more recent anecdotal evidence has suggested? The answer is there is a Grand Canyon‐​wide range of estimates, the ground is still moving, and we could be seeing anything from disaster to boom‐​time for private schools.

The worst‐​case estimate I have seen is from the Gallup poll I tackled last week, with data suggesting that private schools (“private” and “parochial”) would go from an 11 percent share of students last year to just 8 percent in 2020–21. In terms of total enrollment, that would be a drop of 1.5 million students: from roughly 5.7 million to about 4.2 million. That’s a 26 percent loss – pretty devastating.

The middle‐​case estimate is from our private school permanent closure tracker, which catalogues private schools that have announced they are permanently closing at least partially due to the financial effects of COVID-19. Currently we list 118 schools that enrolled about 18,400 students. That is terrible for those schools and kids, but microscopic in overall private schooling context – roughly a 0.3 percent enrollment drop.

Finally, there is the rosiest estimate I have seen, survey results released last week by a group called Civis. According to their data, 39.7 percent of K-12 parents have disenrolled their children from the schools they were originally going to attend this year, and 20.5 percent of those have enrolled their children in private schools. With about 56.3 million students enrolled in K-12 schools, that means 22.4 million will not be attending the school they were originally slated for, and about 4.6 million of those will go to private schools. Assuming private schools face the 39.7 percent departure rate they would lose about 2.3 million students while gaining 4.6 million, or a net 2.3 million addition, bringing the private schooling total to 8.0 million. That would be a 40 percent increase in private school enrollment.

To summarize, the range is:

Private school enrollment COVID effect range

Which scenario should be believed? All have major shortcomings. First and foremost, the situation is extremely fluid, with many school districts having changed their delivery plans late in the game—just yesterday New York City announced a roughly one‐​week delay in starting school—and many parents having changed their plans as COVID numbers and district offerings have evolved. So even data that seem pretty new, such as the Gallup data collected between July 30 and August 12, may be quite out of date. There is also a big categorization problem which can be seen most clearly in the Civis write up, where homeschooling is not even mentioned, and “online” looks synonymous with “disenrolled.” Meanwhile, the closure tracker only captures schools that have either informed the media, or me directly, that they are closing. And it does not capture any new private schools or enrollment increases.

We plan to collect more systematic data on private school enrollment, but considering the still‐​evolving situation we will not be able to do so until after Labor Day, when all public schools should have begun the new year. Until then, I’ll just offer a guess: Private schools are probably faring decently right now—the closure data are certainly better than I feared in April—but they will see only modest enrollment increases in the new year. Largely because I like round numbers, I’ll guess a net gain of 300,000 students, increasing enrollment to about 6.0 million, or roughly 5 percent.

That’s a pretty unscientific guess, but these are unsettled times. Hopefully, more firm answers will be coming soon.