America's 30,000 private schools have used their political might to divert billions of dollars in federal COVID relief from public schools starved of local and state assistance, using the pandemic to substantially expand their decades-long push for public funding far beyond their valuable basic privileges of tax-exemption and deductible donations.
Billions of dollars have been effectively transferred to private schools, most of them Christian, in an unprincipled effort with devastating consequences for low-income students.
The accelerated pace of aid has been a “heads we win, tails you lose” proposition, saddling the school districts most in need of state and federal assistance with under-funding and over-regulation while the private school sector literally profits from outsized government aid and deregulation.
Two-thirds of private schools are under religious, overwhelmingly Christian, sponsorship. The remainder are secular independent schools. Despite substantial reserves, this sizable subsector actively secured forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loans intended for small businesses. Such prestigious schools as St. Ann's in New York, where tuition costs over $50,000 per year for its 1,000 well-heeled pupils, received between $5-$10 million in assistance. St. Andrew's Episcopal School, which Barron Trump attends, has an endowment of $9 million and tuition exceeding $44,000 for upper grades yet still received approximately $9 million from the PPP. Sidwell Friends School, the alma mater of Chelsea Clinton and Malia and Sasha Obama, cashed in for $5 million.
Catholic schools account for a fifth of American private schools. According to data crunched by the Associated Press, “by aggressively promoting the payroll program and marshaling resources to help affiliates navigate its shifting rules,” the Catholic Church was “among [PPP's] biggest winners,” hauling in at least $1.4 billion so far in 2020 COVID-related taxpayer aid and perhaps in excess of $3.5 billion using “a special and unprecedented exemption from federal rules” that allowed it to access money from the U.S. Small Business Administration. Much of this money went to support clergy and religious instruction—a historic expansion of religious support —despite existing tuition, tax advantages, and targeted public aid programs previously secured by their lobbyists including remedial reading and math instruction, curricular materials, technology, transportation, special education, security, and a host of other subsidies worth millions to individual schools and billions to the private school sector.
Not satisfied with gaining extensive PPP support, private schools have shape-shifted from schools to private businesses to schools again in order to double dip from a second federal package, the CARES Act. There, Congress targeted $1.6 billion for public school districts. But buoyed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos' strained interpretation of the Act, private schools across America are now demanding diversion of a disproportionate amount from public schools to private coffers. While the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service has determined that the aid is meant for low-income students, the private school community has claimed its share should be calculated on a per pupil basis for their entire enrollment, whatever their family income. Moreover, they demand that private schools be fully funded before public schools see their first dollar of the remainder. This "off the top" scam is the way private schools annually get to the head of the line for billions in federal Title I remedial education aid.
Beyond these federal policies disproportionately favoring private schools, this term's Supreme Court decisions in cases brought by private school plaintiffs in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue and Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru favored religious school claims to increased state aid and civil rights law exemptions. In Espinoza, the court dismissed constitutional Establishment Clause concerns forbidding government's favoring religion when it held that already vast state and federal aid to secular private schools could not exclude religious schools under the co-equal Free Exercise Clause. The case opened vast new avenues for public aid promoting religious instruction even while such aid had already been widely available for sundry secular purposes.
While garnering this assistance, private schools might be imagined to be subject to reasonable public policy concerns like anti-discrimination laws. This term's companion religion case, Our Lady of Guadalupe, substantially curtailed already politically loose regulatory controls by allowing religious schools to discriminate based on sex, disability, age, and other categories by broadening a blanket “ministerial exception” from discrimination claims for employees even tangentially involved in religious instruction. By providing this loophole, the court allowed the firing of a teacher with breast cancer and another deemed too old (and high-salaried).
Private schools' resentment of the least public oversight is staggering. A state law in New York requiring all schools to meet standards of substantially equivalent secular instruction has been stymied by independent and religious schools alike for the audacity of the state to assure they teach English, math, science, social studies, and the arts. Private schools are exempt from New York's Dignity for All Students Act that prohibits public schools from discriminatory conduct. Shielded by the exemption, a Black student was disciplined at a Catholic school for wearing dreadlocks, hardly a religious proscription. Similar outrages abound. In Arkansas, a 6-year-old was forbidden by her day-care center from wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt. A private school in Ohio created a student drug test requirement that would have failed constitutional muster if instituted by a public school.
Yet the boundaries of private school entitlement grow ever broader. We might as well call private schools “public private schools” given the taxpayer dollars they increasingly claim. The basic American tenet of public schools supported by taxpayers for the common good with an opt-out for parents willing to pay the freight of their private choice is being left behind in a selfish bid for public support with no strings attached. This scam needs to be called out, whether it be excessive corporate bailouts or bountiful private school subsidies. This looting of the public treasury without accountability must stop now.