Time for Congress to help low- and moderate-income families at private schools

By Mike Long

For North Carolina’s 1.8 million K-12 students, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to an unprecedented interruption of critical classroom instruction time, educational programs, and services. Many students have fallen behind or will not be prepared to advance to the next grade, and many families are struggling to cope with their school district’s reopening plan that does not include fully reopening. Our leaders face the challenging task of keeping students and teachers safe while recovering lost learning time and accommodating working parents.

In this environment, we cannot afford to ignore the many low- and moderate-income families who choose alternatives to their locally zoned public school district—amounting to over 370,000 students across the state. Many students and families are facing unprecedented hardships this year. This is true of students attending private schools as well, especially the many lower income families facing both economic uncertainty and potential instability in their children’s education.

Right now, Congress is weighing relief that would create a sustainable tax-credit program to support lower income families with education options and funds for at-home learning. I offer sincere kudos to Senators Tim Scott (SC) and Lamar Alexander (TN) for introducing the School Choice Now Act.

North Carolina families need more options, not fewer, during the COVID-19 pandemic, and students should be supported in the education environment that is the best fit for them, causes the least disruption to their learning, and meets the needs of their families.

The proposal before Congress would do that. It would include a one-time emergency tuition grant for low- to middle-income private school families in North Carolina. It would also create an annual federal tax credit for voluntary donations to state-based scholarship granting organizations, a school-choice bonus that NC currently does not have. Families could use these scholarships for an array of educational options, including private-school tuition, special-needs services, tutoring, education technology, and apprenticeship and certification programs. States receiving these emergency grants would continue the scholarship programs, funded through philanthropy and the federal tax credit, going forward.

Without this type of support, private school closures will accelerate across North Carolina. This would be devastating for our families, students, and communities. It would be equally devastating, financially, for our public school districts. That is because the 7 percent of students attending private school in North Carolina save taxpayers approximately $1 billion each year. Add to this the need for more physical space in schools to implement social distancing requirements, and it is clear we cannot afford for any schools to close their doors.

Ultimately, all children in North Carolina deserve access to a quality education. As the country responds to COVID-19 and prepares for the 2020-21 school year, it’s time to adopt common sense and fiscally responsible relief policies that serve the immediate needs of children and families.