Education and Child Policy

May 22, 2020 11:16AM

Private School COVID-19 Permanent Closure Tracker— May 22, 2020

33 private schools have announced that they are closing permanently at least in part due to the COVID-19 economic downturn. That is up from 26 on our special Monday, May 18 update.

We have adjusted how we collect enrollment data, using a combination of media reports, Private School Review, and direct contact with schools. 5,690 students attend the schools that are closing, up from 5,217 on Monday. Were all of these students to go to public schools, and had none been part of publicly connected school choice such as voucher programs or scholarship tax‐​credits, the new cost to the public purse would be roughly $88,000,000 ($15,424 per student multiplied by 5,690).

Private school permanent closure 5/22/20

As always, the list is expected to grow as schools learn more about the impact of the economic downturn on enrollment and income for the coming school year. We will ordinarily post an update on Cato’s blog every Friday, but if the list reaches 100 schools we may transition to an online, searchable format. You can contact CEF director Neal McCluskey if you need more current numbers, if you know of permanent closures not on the list, or if you believe schools have been listed by mistake. We also welcome suggestions for improving the list.

May 18, 2020 1:52PM

Private School COVID-19 Permanent Closure Tracker, Enrollment Data Added: May 18, 2020

Last week’s Private School COVID-19 Permanent Closure Tracker prompted several people to send reports of closing schools that we had not previously captured, and one additional closure was announced after we published. We have also added enrollment numbers to our list so that we can track the number of students who are being displaced. Given the influx of schools and new enrollment column, we are publishing a special Monday update.

The list now has 26 schools with a total enrollment of 5,217. Were all of these students to go to public schools, and had none been part of publicly connected school choice such as voucher programs or scholarship tax‐​credits, the new cost to the public purse would be approximately $80,000,000 ($15,424 per student multiplied by 5,217). This is a rough estimate – some of these students may have attended their current school using a choice program such as a voucher; different kids have different needs and hence require different levels of resources; etc.

Private school permanent closure 5/18/20

Enrollment data come from Niche​.com and may be revised as better data come available. As always, the list is expected to grow as schools learn more about the impact of the economic downturn on enrollment and income for the coming school year. We will ordinarily post an update on Cato’s blog every Friday, but if the list reaches 100 schools we may transition to an online, searchable format. You can contact CEF director Neal McCluskey if you need more current numbers, if you know of permanent closures not on the list, or if you believe schools have been listed by mistake. We also welcome suggestions for improving the list.

May 15, 2020 10:14AM

Private School COVID-19 Permanent Closure Tracker — May 15, 2020

Last week Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom posted the first list of private schools across the country that have announced that they are permanently closing their doors because the COVID-19 economy has made it financially impossible for them to continue operating. This week the list includes 18 schools, up from 11 last week. Note that rather than representing new announcements from the previous week, almost all of the additional schools are closings that were announced before the first list was published but were brought to our attention afterward.

Private School Closure List 5/15/2020

Note also that the closure of 10 schools in the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, were announced last week – 9 diocesan schools and the archdiocesan‐​sponsored Cristo Rey Newark High School. None of the diocesan schools appear on the list because the decision to close them was made prior to COVID-19. The decision to close Cristo Rey Newark, however, was made at least in part because the COVID economy has likely rendered the school’s financial model unsustainable.

The list is expected to grow as schools learn more about the impact of the economic downturn on enrollment and income for the coming school year. As a reminder, we will post an updated list on Cato’s blog every Friday, but if the list reaches 100 schools we may transition to an online, searchable format. You can contact CEF director Neal McCluskey if you need more current numbers, if you know of permanent closures not on the list, or if you believe schools have been listed by mistake. We also welcome suggestions for improving the list.

May 8, 2020 10:13AM

Private School COVID-19 Permanent Closure Tracker

All schools will likely suffer in the COVID-19 recession. But as recently discussed, private schools as a whole are likely to suffer worse consequences than public: not just cutbacks, death.

Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom has begun tracking private schools that are going out of business—not just temporarily closing their buildings—at least in part due to COVID-19. “At least in part” because many private schools perennially get by on shoestring budgets as they try to compete with “free” public schools. That means they are often in precarious financial situations. And, of course, some private schools are not all that good, have been rocked by clergy scandals, are facing demographic changes—many things affect any given school. In other words, the COVID-19 recession may just be the final nail in a school’s coffin. But it is a huge nail driven by a jackhammer.

All the schools below have announced upcoming permanent closure at least somewhat driven by COVID-19 financial impacts:

Private school permanent closure 5/8/20

We will update this list in a blog post every Friday for the foreseeable future, but if it gets long enough we will likely move it to a more user‐​friendly, searchable form. You can contact CEF director Neal McCluskey if you need more current numbers, if you know of permanent closures not on the list, or if you believe schools have been listed by mistake. We also welcome suggestions for information to improve the list.

May 6, 2020 12:37PM

When It Comes to Money, Most Private Schools Are Not Sidwell Friends

Several private schools are taking a public relations beating for applying for CARES Act relief, including Sidwell Friends, the alma mater of several presidential children. But most private schools are not Sidwell Friends, and they should not be shamed for help they need to survive not just in the COVID economy, but as they compete against taxpayer‐​funded public schools.

According to the Washington Post’s coverage of the Sidwell dust‐​up, the school charges $45,000 in tuition. To place that in the spectrum of private school tuition nationally I’ll adjust to 2011 dollars, because the most recent national data on private school tuition is from the 2011-12 school year. That puts Sidwell’s tuition at about $39,000.

How does that stack up? In 2011-12 average tuition for all private schools—including Catholic, other religious, and nonsectarian—was $10,740, less than a third of what Sidwell charges. Indeed, too few Catholic schools charged $15,000 or more to be reliably included in the count, and none of the three groupings had average tuition above $22,000.

What follows is the number of schools and average tuition by private‐​school sector in 2011-12:

2011-12 Private School Number and Average Tuition

To put those charges in some overall K-12 perspective, the average public school spent $12,796 per student in 2011.

As I wrote recently, the COVID economy is going to be tough on all schools, but deadly for many privates. Public schools will keep getting taxpayer funding, though reduced, while many financially struggling families will have little choice but to stop paying tuition when there is a “free” alternative. That will kill many private schools working on ultra‐​thin margins.

Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom has begun tracking private schools going under as they face the COVID economy, and the list already includes 11 institutions, including one added last night: the Institute of Notre Dame, a 170‐​year‐​old Catholic girls school in Baltimore that includes among its alums House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski. NDI, like many schools on the closure list, has been struggling financially for years. As with COVID-19 itself, the COVID economy has so far proven especially dangerous to schools with underlying financial conditions, conditions in large part grounded in an education system that makes people pay once for public schools and a second time for private.

Ordinarily, I would argue that federal money should not be offered to private schools, and they should refuse it if proffered. But that is typically money specifically for education, not relief offered for all in an economic shutdown in part required by government. I urge schools—and any other organizations—that could do without help to leave the money for others, but economic relief is not the same as federal funding specifically for education.

Sidwell Friends may be able to thrive without relief. But most private schools are not Sidwell Friends, and many need all the help they can get to survive not just in the COVID economy, but in an education system that has long been massively stacked against them.

May 4, 2020 3:49PM

U.S. Department of Education: 40 Years Is Enough

Department of Education Seal

Happy birthday U.S. Department of EducationI guess. Today is ED’s 40th (yes, that’s its official abbreviation) and its impact has been mixed at best, and most likely negative. The same goes for federal education intervention overall, which became especially centralized with ED’s birth. Thankfully, as I and my co‐​authors lay out in a new Cato paper, there are achievable ways out.

To understand what ED is about, and what the feds have accomplished in education, it’s worth watching the entire three‐​part webinar Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom put on last week. It features speakers who have studied federal education policy extensively, some of whom were also involved in ED’s earliest days.

The first panel discussed why the Department was created. The biggest pursuit was not academic excellence or expanding education access—though they likely motivated many policymakers—but political power. As Christopher Cross, author of Political Education: Setting the Course for State and Federal Policy, explained, ED was basically a payoff to the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, for their 1976 support of Jimmy Carter’s presidential candidacy.

“Jimmy Carter…recognized the importance of having the network of teachers out there across the country who were NEA members working on his behalf,” Cross said.

Alas, ED’s constitutionality was at most a tiny part of the debate, if it was grappled with at all. Which makes sense: Had constitutionality been seriously considered, the Department could not have been justified.

What we have gotten from ED was the topic of the second panel, and neither ED, nor federal education policy generally, fared well. While all three panelists agreed that the federal government has an important role in civil rights enforcement, there was less belief that ED had had a positive impact on learning. That said, such impact is difficult to peg. Despite Washington’s outsized influence relative to its roughly 8 percent share of K-12 funding, much of what affects test scores is beyond federal control. Given that uncertainty, Catherine Brown, the Department’s first Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, said many programs “haven’t accomplished what everybody wanted.” But, she added, “things would probably be a lot worse if we didn’t have them.”

One thing we do know is that total, inflation‐​adjusted federal education spending, including K-12 programs and college student aid, has risen greatly since 1980, from $115 billion to $296 billion. Meanwhile, national test scores for 17‐​year‐​olds have been basically flat, though they have risen for younger ages and various subgroups of kids. In addition, data suggest that the share of all bachelor’s degree holders coming from low‐​income families has been stagnant.

The third panel tackled what should be done with ED, and the consensus was that it should be phased out. Maria Ferguson of the Center on Education Policy, however, argued that the Department had an important bully pulpit role to play. “The secretary of education…can do more for education…by staying away from politics and focusing more on the business of schools and communities and teachers who are trying to do hard work,” she said.

What would a federal rightsizing look like? Cato’s new Policy Analysis lays it out in seven areas:

  • elementary and secondary education funding
  • curricular standards and testing mandates
  • state and local planning mandates
  • school choice
  • higher education
  • early childhood education and care
  • civil rights

Given Washington’s burdensome education presence and dubious performance—not to mention lack of constitutional authorization—in all areas we recommend loosening federal control. This includes increasing states’ discretion in using money they get—actually, get returned—from D.C.; allowing states to adopt multiple curriculum standards and tests; increasing school choice in federal jurisdictions; and much more. All of the recommendations are intended to be politically feasible in the near‐​term, and I encourage you to read the entire paper.

Federal education meddling, especially since the advent of the Department of Education, has been of questionable value at best, and a high‐​dollar, bureaucratic failure at worst. On ED’s 40th birthday, it is time to start making things right.

May 4, 2020 10:52AM

Expand Access, Save Money: Online College Has Promise after COVID-19

Laptop computer and coffee on outdoor table

How do you provide a higher education when students and professors cannot physically meet? The American ivory tower has been forced to figure that out as its denizens — and much of the world — have responded to the coronavirus pandemic by hunkering down at home. This has left really only one option: online learning. The questions to be dealt with now are whether mass online learning is sustainable, and if so, whether it should be sustained.

So far, though most professors seem to have adjusted to online video chatting platforms such as Zoom, some horror stories, like Zoom bombing, have emerged. Also, some professors uncomfortable with real‐​time presentation apps have prerecorded their lectures. On the flip side, pioneering online learning organizations have stepped up. EdX is offering free courses to universities within its partnership, and Coursera is furnishing free courses to universities inside and outside of its network.

What does history tell us about a pandemic taking online learning to a wider scale? Perhaps the closest analog to the current situation is Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which devastated New Orleans and severely disrupted about 20 colleges. The Sloan Consortium, an association of institutions supporting online education, offered free virtual classes from about 100 schools to 1,700 students to help them keep up with their studies.

Of course, Katrina was very different from the current situation. Fifteen years ago, there were relatively few options for online learning. In 2019, in contrast, 2.4 million undergraduates, or 15% of the total undergrad student body, studied entirely online, and another 3.6 million took online courses along with on‐​campus classes. Online learning is much more of a thing than it was in 2005.

The second major difference, of course, was that the effects of Katrina were limited geographically, whereas the coronavirus is a worldwide disrupter. The demand for online education is orders of magnitude greater and far fewer colleges are in positions to help their peers.

What do we know about the effectiveness of online learning? Most research suggests in‐​person instruction leads to better performance. Students who took the same course online and in‐​person at DeVry University earned an average of a C if online but B- if in‐​person. Students across the board suffered lower performance in online classes at Washington State, but males, younger students, Black students, and students with lower grade point averages especially struggled. 2019 paper reported that online education failed to keep pace with in‐​person, especially for more at‐​risk groups such as low‐​income students.

Some research is more encouraging. Students who took an MITx physics course online learned more than lecture‐​based students. Also, a recent Gallup‐​2U survey found that graduates of 2U‐​powered online programs were just as likely as graduates from traditional universities to agree that they had professors who made them excited about learning, and that they were challenged academically. Finally, a recent study found that online STEM courses in Russia produced similar student learning outcomes to traditional in‐​person instruction at a much lower cost, though student satisfaction was lower with online courses.

A major benefit of mass migration online may be innovation that vastly improves outcomes; necessity, after all, is the mother of invention. But assuming the academic effects of online education remain worse than in‐​person, can widespread use still be a net gain, even after the major COVID-19 threat passes? Yes, because it can dramatically improve accessibility by overcoming physical distance. In 2016, more than half of all first‐​time, full‐​time, first‐​year students at four‐​year schools attended institutions 100 or fewer miles from their homes. Online education could put institutions geographically much farther away at students’ fingertips.

Second, unlike a dorm or lecture hall, there is no limit to the number of students who can fit inside a pre‐​recorded online lecture. If a course is popular, it could essentially enroll an infinite number of students. It could also give far more students access to the same teacher, reducing differences in teaching quality. And students could interact and collaborate outside of class on Zoom and chat rooms.

The ability to serve more students, coupled with a declining need for expensive‐​to‐​maintain physical campuses, could yield major cost savings down the line. As Vance Fried has noted, some online providers charge as little as $50 per credit hour, whereas the average price at a four‐​year public institution is $325 and at a four‐​year private it is $1,039.

That said, there are some clear limits to the potential reach of online education. One major bottleneck is grading, especially of involved assessments such as research papers or exams with essay questions. The lecture of one professor may be seen by millions, but a single professor can only grade so much. Another limit is that some courses must have a physical component. It is very difficult to master chemistry without a lab. Engineers need to put stuff together.

Right now, for many colleges, online learning is just a lifeline. When the pandemic subsides, should it grow beyond its pre‐​COVID level? That depends on what students demand, of course. But we may well see the quality of online college improve, and even if not, it makes higher ed accessible to far more people than brick‐​and‐​mortar schooling. So online is probably here to stay, and its expansion would almost certainly be a good thing.