October 13, 2020 1:10PM

Update on The State of Private Schools under COVID-19

Launching the Center for Educational Freedom’s new book School Choice Myths: Setting the Record Straight on Education Freedom has taken up a lot of my time over the last couple of weeks, so I haven’t been able to post a summary of our data on the health of private schooling under COVID-19. But it’s not too late to pull it together, even as the state of K-12 schooling continues to evolve.


The good news is we have not seen the kill‐​off of private schools that many—myself included—feared at the outset of lockdowns. Our permanent closure tracker has not recorded a COVID‐​connected closing since September 1 and the total stands at 116 schools, reduced to 111 when school consolidations are considered. That is a tiny fraction of the nation’s approximately 32,500 private schools containing at least one grade K-12.

Permanent Private School COVID Closures by Date 101320

Of course, it is entirely possible that some permanent closures have not come to our attention. Many private schools are very small—almost a third have fewer than 50 students—and some schools may have ceased operations without any public announcement.

In early September we conducted a survey of 400 private schools randomly selected from the federal Private School Universe database and found 6 that had closed since the data was collected in the 2017–18 school year. 4 appear to have closed in 2020, but only 1 with an explicit connection to COVID, 1 before COVID, and 2 announced during the lockdown period but with unknown COVID connections. That suggests that less than 1 percent of private schools have closed due to COVID, consistent with our tracker numbers.


We have also seen private schools lose students, as anticipated. It is difficult for many people to pay tuition when they can access “free” public schools, for which, of course, they have had to pay taxes. It is even harder when families have suffered income reductions and the service was forced online and, hence, was of probably somewhat compromised quality.

According to our survey, about 57 percent of private schools saw enrollment reductions between the previous school year and early‐ to mid‐​September of this year, with 24 percent seeing an increase and 19 percent no change. On average, responding schools lost 14 students, or about a 6 percent enrollment reduction. Those numbers include pre‐​K students, which many schools with kindergarten and above often have. Set aside pre‐​K enrollment and roughly 47 percent of private schools saw declining enrollment, 33 percent increasing, and 21 percent no change. On average schools lost about 6 students.

Private school enrollment changes with pre-k

The 6 percent loss when including pre‐​K students would translate into a loss nationally of about 343,000 students from the most recent federal tally of total private school enrollment, which was from 2017.

This trimming of students—many of whom are likely homeschooling, at least temporarily—has not, apparently, been catastrophic for most schools, and numbers have likely been in flux as public school policies have evolved. But many private schools have thin margins and might not be able to sustain many more losses. As WORLD Radio noted in a story about Christian schools under COVID, which have seen similar enrollment trends to what we found for all privates, “Losing 7 percent of the student body may not sound like a lot, but for Christian schools that operate on tight margins those losses add up.”


Private schools are not folding at the rate we feared, but they are hurting, even as they have responded more quickly to families than have public schools. To retain these diverse institutions—and much more importantly, the ability to choose—money needs to follow children, whether it is via any federal relief that might come down the pike, or state education funding. We need to stop funding institutions and start funding children.

October 12, 2020 5:31PM

COVID-19 Vaccines Depend on Globalization (And, Therefore, So Does the Trump Administration)

Last week, the Wall Street Journal examined government efforts to secure early access to doses of the most advanced COVID-19 vaccines, and how this access could prove to be a game‐​changer for these economies in 2021. As shown in the following WSJ chart, many governments have contracted with multiple pharmaceutical companies in order to ensure that they have access to at least one vaccine that successfully completes “Phase III” trials, which are now underway for most of the listed drugs. Among these governments is the United States, which has thus far secured vaccine commitments from Oxford/​AstraZeneca (0.91 doses per capita); Novavax (0.3); Sanofi/​GSK (0.3); BioNTech/​Pfizer (1.83); J&J/Janssen (0.3); and Moderna/​NIAID (1.52). This puts the United States second, behind only the United Kingdom, in contracting for early vaccine doses and thereby potentially saving thousands of American lives and restarting the struggling domestic economy if one or more of those vaccines pans out.

Governments have contracted with several drugmakers to secure early access to COVID-19 vaccines

Beyond the sheer size and scope of the U.S. effort, what’s perhaps most striking here is the extent to which the Trump administration jettisoned its economic nationalism in pursuit of a game‐​changing COVID-19 vaccine. Indeed, as shown in the chart below (based our own independent research), each of the vaccines that the United States has secured appears to be heavily reliant on globalization — of investment, manufacturing, testing, and research personnel — to produce the final doses at the absolute maximum speed and scale.

This summary, moreover, is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the truly‐​global effort to beat COVID-19. Unmentioned in the chart above, for example, are all of the other people from around the world — investors, researchers, production workers, etc. — that make the listed companies, facilities and processes hum, as well as the previous global collaborations that have driven pharmaceutical innovation for decades.

Also unmentioned are the numerous other vaccine candidates that are in earlier stages of development. For example, a recent survey by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), which is working with the World Health Organization to ensure global access to a COVID-19 vaccine, showed over a hundred potential manufacturers of both vaccine‐​related drug substances (inputs) and drug products (doses) located in dozens of countries around the world (including, of course, the United States):

Numerous countries can produce inputs for COVID-19 vaccines
Global COVID-19 vaccine production

Since the unfortunate onset of COVID-19, American politicians of all stripes — but especially in the Trump administration — have blamed “globalization” for the pandemic and promised to re‐​shore U.S. manufacturing to bolster American “resiliency” and national security. Yet these very same officials have quietly embraced that very same globalization when it matters the most.

Lessons abound.

October 7, 2020 4:32PM

The Long History of Official Lies about Presidential Health

Let’s hope President Trump’s health is as sound as he says it is and he’s well on the road to recovery. He certainly seems… chipper, at any rate. Still, you’d be a fool to take such professions on faith—not just because of the non‐​stop frenzy of dissembling and double talk we’ve seen since Friday, when the president revealed he was COVID-positive—but because of the long history of official lies about presidents’ health. 

The president reports he feels A-OK

When I saw the headline “Medical Spin in Past Undermines Trust” in Sunday’s New York Times, I thought they’d go into some of that history. But the article’s mostly about past dissembling by this president’s doctors about this president’s health. Fair enough, but a longer view gives us still more reason to verify, instead of trust, official pronouncements about the state of any president’s health.

The best‐​known story is probably Woodrow Wilson’s massive stroke in October 1919, which left him bedridden and almost wholly incapacitated for the remainder of his term. His wife Edith essentially served as acting president, “shield[ing] Woodrow from interlopers and embark[ing] on a bedside government that essentially excluded Wilson’s staff, the Cabinet and the Congress.” But, as historian Robert Dallek recounts in his 2010 article “Presidential Fitness and Presidential Lies,” examples are legion. FDR managed to keep the public mostly in the dark about his partial paralysis from polio, aided by camera‐​snatching Secret Service agents who wouldn’t allow photos of the president in a wheelchair. While pursuing a fourth term in 1944, Roosevelt was “suffering from an enlarged heart and severe hypertension that threatened his life, [and] experienced significant weight loss, headaches, fatigue, and an inability to concentrate for sustained periods of time.” He died 82 days after inauguration. “In running for reelection under these circumstances,” Dallek writes, “FDR committed a terrible ethical breach.”

John F. Kennedy’s aura of vitality and “vigah” depended on deliberate lies about his massive health problems, including the adrenal‐​gland disorder Addison’s disease, for which he required regular steroid treatments. In 2013, after examining a raft of newly released Kennedy papers, Dallek reported that

“during his presidency—and in particular during times of stress, such as the Bay of Pigs fiasco, in April of 1961, and the Cuban missile crisis, in October of 1962—Kennedy was taking an extraordinary variety of medications: steroids for his Addison’s disease; painkillers for his back; anti‐​spasmodics for his colitis; antibiotics for urinary‐​tract infections; antihistamines for allergies; and, on at least one occasion, an anti‐​psychotic (though only for two days) for a severe mood change that Jackie Kennedy believed had been brought on by the antihistamines.”

Kennedy’s regimen also included a potent cocktail of painkillers and amphetamines regularly administered by celebrity physician Max “Dr. Feelgood” Jacobson; “I don’t care if it’s horse piss, it works,” JFK said of the injections.

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October 7, 2020 12:20PM

Before Reopening, California Counties Must Meet “Equity” Standard

This seems as if it ought to be more controversial: yesterday the state of California implemented a COVID-19 “health equity” metric mandating that counties demonstrate that they are investing in “eliminating disparities in levels of transmission” affecting disadvantaged communities, or have already eliminated such disparities, as a condition of being allowed to reopen economic activity any further. Simply achieving a satisfactory overall low rate of transmission will not be enough.

Notice that the rationale for the policy cannot be simply a concern that a county is not truly safe overall so long as it still has any hot spots of higher prevalence. If that were the concern, the straightforward response would be to require a showing of investment in addressing whatever localized hot spots a county might have, no matter what their racial or socioeconomic composition.

Although the current wave of COVID infection in California tends to correlate with poorer and minority communities, we know that over the course of the pandemic many hot spots have emerged in places that were not especially disadvantaged economically — ski resorts, college towns, places with many international business travelers, and so forth. Apparently it’s going to be fine for a county to reopen in California if it’s got localized hot spots in categories like those, so long as its overall countywide numbers are satisfactory.

Writes local reporter Bill Melugin, “The state will incorporate the California ‘Healthy Places Index’ (HPI) into its decision making for county reopenings. The HPI measures numerous things, including two parent households, voting, alcohol availability, retail density, clean air & water, and ‘tree canopy’.” A related map suggests that communities with high property values and income levels, especially those nearer the coast, tend to dominate the ranks of designated healthy communities.

One hopes that what is going on here is not a threat to restrain economic activity that would otherwise be recognized as low‐​risk as a way of obtaining leverage with which to push counties into “equity” initiatives that go beyond criteria of sound disease control.

September 28, 2020 10:05AM

Survey: Roughly Half of Private Schools See Decreased Enrollment

During the first few months of COVID-19 lockdowns, supporters of private schooling feared that the sector would take a huge enrollment, financial, and ultimately existential hit. During the summer, however, fears subsided. Cato’s tracker of COVID‐​related private school closings grew to almost 120 schools, but nowhere near mass extinction. And as public schools increasingly announced that they would only operate online to start the new year, anecdotal evidence suggested ramped‐​up private school demand. Meanwhile, national surveys offered mixed clues as to what might be happening to private schools.

To get a quick but more concrete sense of the start‐​of‐​the‐​year enrollment situation, Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom conducted a survey from September 9 to the 18th of 400 private schools with a highest grade of kindergarten or higher, randomly selected from the federal Private School Universe database. We asked only if a school’s enrollment had increased, decreased, or stayed the same from the previous school year, and by how many students it may have changed including and excluding pre‐​K students.

As shown below, we found that when pre‐​K students are included, 57 percent of schools lost enrollment between last school year and the current one, 24 percent saw an increase, and 19 percent remained unchanged.

Private school enrollment changes with pre-k

Excluding pre‐​K students—so just looking at students in the K-12 range—47 percent lost students, 33 percent increased, and 21 percent were unchanged.

Private school enrollment changes without pre-k

What do enrollment numbers look like? Including pre‐​K students, the average school lost slightly fewer than 14 students, and without pre‐​K the average loss approached 6 students. To put those losses in context, the average school that responded to our survey enrolled about 225 students, including pre‐​K, according to the most recent enrollment data we could find. So they experienced, on average, roughly a 6 percent enrollment loss. The range of changes was large, from a gain of 90 students to a loss of 137. Not including pre‐​K students, the range was a gain of 75 to a loss of 100.

Note that one school that replied to our survey closed due to COVID-19. It is included in calculations of shares of schools with increasing, decreasing, or unchanged enrollments but not specific numbers. That school has been added to the closure tracker.

There are important limits to this survey. We conducted it quickly to begin filling a vacuum of information on how private schools were faring as the school year began. We only received 62 usable surveys—a 16 percent response rate—yielding a margin of error of +/- 12 percentage. We did not receive changes specifically for non‐​pre‐​K students from 4 schools that had pre‐​K students, so results excluding pre‐​K students are for only 58 schools, yielding a margin of error of +/- 13 percent. Also, we gathered total previous enrollment data from several sources that might be older than the previous year—we asked schools only for net gain or loss figures—and a handful of losses would be larger than the possibly old total enrollment recorded. We kept numbers as reported. Finally, while the 400 schools contacted were randomly selected, it is not clear that responses were not skewed in some way. That said, one check—the share of schools that are Catholic—suggested responses were close to representative: 21 percent were Catholic, almost exactly matching the Catholic share of all private schools according to recent federal figures. Similarly, Baptist schools composed about 5 percent of our respondents and account for roughly 5 percent of all private schools.

Of course, better polling as the year goes on and deeper analysis are needed, but these findings help provide some broad, early insight into 2020–21 effects of COVID-19 on private schools.

September 24, 2020 5:44PM

A Tale of Two Scourges

Some observers of our policy toward the coronavirus pandemic criticize the tendency to focus on case numbers alone, when hospitalization rates and fatality rates are what really matter. And as we learn more about the COVID virus, mitigation and treatment is improving and fatalities are diminishing.

Similarly, the U.S. Department of Justice’s policy toward the overdose epidemic seems to be focused on arrests and drug interdictions, apparent in a DOJ press release today, itemizing the arrests of drug traffickers and seizures of illegal drugs that have resulted since “Operation SOS” began in July 2018. But it’s the overdose death rate that really matters.

The DOJ claims its operation is bringing down overdose deaths. There’s just one problem: overdoses were already rising in 2019 and early 2020, even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and are soaring since the start of the pandemic.

Public health experts and health care practitioners have learned, since the early days of the pandemic, how to mitigate spread with harm reduction measures such as wearing masks and social distancing, and how to better treat the infection. New therapeutics are being developed and, hopefully soon, a vaccine will help us reach “herd” or “community” immunity.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for those who prosecute the drug war. Public officials seem reluctant to mitigate the spread of death and disease with proven harm reduction measures like “needle exchange” and “safe injection site” programs, Medication Assisted Treatment, and over‐​the‐​counter distribution of the overdose antidote naloxone. And they seem disinterested in developing the overdose epidemic’s version of a vaccine: ending drug prohibition.

All public health experts agree that, eventually, the world’s population will recover as the coronavirus pandemic gradually disappears. Alas, the same cannot be said about the overdose epidemic.

Look for the DOJ to release another upbeat press release touting arrests and drug seizures next year. And look for overdoses to continue to mount as well.

September 23, 2020 3:05PM

Federal Spending and Deficits

Spending and deficits used to be a battleground in federal elections as each party suggested reforms and blamed the other for fiscal irresponsibility. Candidates proposed tax and spending plans, and reporters examined whether the figures added up and what the impact might be.

These days, the leaders of both parties are ignoring the fiscal hurricane heading for landfall on our economy, while reporters rarely probe the politicians about the coming storm.

The Congressional Budget Office has released its latest outlook showing where the budget and economy may be headed. Without reforms, debt held by the public is projected to rise from 98 percent of GDP today to 195 percent by 2050. If Congress expands programs or the nation gets hit with new crises, debt will rise even faster. Americans in the future will face their own costly health, military, and other challenges, and they will have to bear those new costs plus the costs of our excess spending imposed on them through debt.

In its usual understated way, the CBO summarizes the threat:

High and rising federal debt makes the economy more vulnerable to rising interest rates and, depending on how that debt is financed, rising inflation. The growing debt burden also raises borrowing costs, slowing the growth of the economy and national income, and it increases the risk of a fiscal crisis or a gradual decline in the value of Treasury securities.

Here are some charts from the CBO study:

The first chart shows that federal debt spiked in the past from wars and other crises, and that debt will soar to record levels in the future even under CBO’s smooth‐​sailing economic projections.


Washington has a spending problem, not a revenue problem. The next chart shows that, without law changes, tax revenues will remain a fairly stable share of the economy, while spending rises rapidly because large federal programs are on an auto‐​pilot growth path.

CBO spending and revenue projections

This next chart shows the growth of federal spending categories under CBO assumptions. The downward slope of the “discretionary” and “other mandatory” lines may be optimistic because Congress occasionally spikes spending on those categories and each of the programs within the categories have lobby groups pushing for more.


Tax revenues are expected to edge upward in coming years even without legislated increases. The next chart shows that real bracket creep and expiring tax breaks will boost the federal tax share of the economy.


The last chart shows the largest cost driver in the federal budget—health care. One of the presidential candidates plans to expand government health care, yet both parties have failed to tackle the ballooning costs of the health programs we already have.


How should we tackle the budget crisis? Downsizing Government proposes many spending cuts.