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.