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Education After COVID: Emerging From The Fiscal Crisis Facing Private Schools

Alexandra Benjamin Principal, Immaculate Conception School
Jill Kafka Executive Director, Partnership Schools
Darla Romfo President, Children’s Scholarship Fund
Rabbi Motti Seligson Director of Media Relations, Chabad Lubavitch
Andy Smarick Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute (Moderator)
Wed, Jun 24, 2020 EVENTCAST

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Education After COVID: Emerging From The Fiscal Crisis Facing Private Schools

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Forum

Education After COVID: Emerging From The Fiscal Crisis Facing Private Schools

Alexandra Benjamin Principal, Immaculate Conception School
Jill Kafka Executive Director, Partnership Schools
Darla Romfo President, Children’s Scholarship Fund
Rabbi Motti Seligson Director of Media Relations, Chabad Lubavitch
Andy Smarick Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute (Moderator) EVENTCAST 12:00pm—01:00pm
Wednesday June 24
Wednesday June 24 2020
PAST EVENT Wednesday June 24 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic presents immense challenges for schools in both the public and private sector. Schools face a fiscal crisis due to budget shortfalls as a result of the economic shutdown. Public schools must manage losses in tax revenue at the state and local level. Private and religious schools, which rely on tuition payments and charitable contributions from families, will also struggle, as the economic crisis has impacted the incomes of millions of Americans.

Schools, public and private alike, require assistance from the federal government to endure economic hardship. The collapse of private and religious schools displace students, exacerbating the burden on public schools, and destabilizing the learning environment for many. For the sake of students, national leaders cannot allow these schools to fail.

On June 24, join the Manhattan Institute for a conversation with experts in education on the measures policymakers should take to ensure that both public and private schools emerge strong following the pandemic.

Event Transcript

Andy Smarick:

Hi everyone. Sincere thanks for joining us here today for our event titled Education after COVID: Emerging from the Fiscal Crisis Facing Private Schools. My name is Andy Smarick, I'm a senior fellow here at the Manhattan Institute. We have four terrific panelists who I'm going to introduce in just one moment. But first I wanted to explain why this topic is of such importance and provide just a little bit of context for the conversation we're going to have. There are three interesting issues that I would like to raise here at the beginning that can hopefully form, or at least, shape the discussion to come. The first one is that the COVID pandemic continues to seriously affect America's schools. Closures obviously inhibited student learning, but the need to figure out homeschooling arrangements disrupted family routines and rhythms.

Andy Smarick:

The economic collapse caused by the quarantine significantly reduced government tax revenues, which is having a substantial influence on school budgets, and it will for some time to come. So we just have to recognize that although the pandemic really hit us hard in March and then into April, it's having lingering effects on all schools in America. But the second point that's essential to keep in mind is that private schools, especially those serving disadvantaged students, have been particularly vulnerable in this time. Many of these schools were struggling financially before COVID. Remember, in most cases, they don't receive direct government aid, they rely on tuition from their often low income families. They need philanthropic support to stay afloat in many cases. So all that's generally true, but the nation's current financial situation has made things even more difficult.

Andy Smarick:

Many families are out of work, meaning it's harder to make their tuition payments, many donors are unable to give as much as they once had. So, just to step back and put this into context. Between 10 and 15 years ago, there was a flurry of activity related to the precarious position of private schools serving disadvantaged kids. Seeing the data that was showing that these kinds of schools had been closing for decade, after decade, after decade, policy writers and academics produced a number of studies explaining why this was cause for concern. Just by way of reference, today there are fewer than half as many Catholic K-12 schools as there were 50 years ago when they reached their peak back in the late 1960s. But one important theme across all of these different reports was that many schools were barely hanging on financially, and that some sort of shock could do outsized damage to the sector if it just came about and we weren't prepared for it.

Andy Smarick:

Well, the pandemic and its consequences could very well be that shock. Cato Center for Education Freedom reports that since the pandemic took hold, 72 private schools have already closed. Obviously, more closures could be on the way as schools consider whether or not they have the resources necessary to open in the fall, so that 72 number is probably going to be the floor, not the ceiling. The third point that I want to make, the final one, is probably the one that is most subtle, but maybe most important overall. Which is the mass closure of private schools, particularly those in disadvantaged communities, really needs to be seen as a public concern, not just a private concern. These schools are typically run by community-based nonprofits, they can be anchors of their neighborhoods. The sector's diversity gives families choice and it supports this great American pluralism that has defined us for centuries.

Andy Smarick:

These schools are an important part of civil society. They show how a wide array of voluntary associations, people volunteering their time together can contribute to the common good. And not incidentally, if these schools close, their students may need to enroll back in their local public schools. Which obviously will try their best to do a great job for them, but that presents new financial costs to already cash-strapped districts. Indeed, Cato's report estimates that the private school closures already during the quarantine phase could cost the public system as much as $140 million. So, with all that said, we're here today to talk about the financial pressures these private schools are facing. Describe what they mean to their community so we have an understanding of why it's important to save them. And then lastly, explore what kind of smart policy interventions might lend a hand to this cause.

Andy Smarick:

I'm going to introduce our panelists now in the order that I'm going to ask them to speak. First up is Alex Benjamin, she is the Principal of Immaculate Conception in the South Bronx. Immaculate Conception is such a great story, it's been serving their community for over 150 years. It's one of seven New York City Catholic schools that are part of the Partnership network. Alex is dedicated to creating an environment where students can become faith-filled citizens who are prepared to pursue all opportunities that are afforded to them. Next is Rabbi Motti Seligson, he's a director for the Chabad Lubavitch Movement. Chabad operates the largest Jewish organization in the world, 3,500 social service religious and educational institutions in more than 100 different countries, including dozens of schools.

Andy Smarick:

Also, third will be Jill Kafka. She's the Executive Director of Partnership Schools, the Independent School Management organization that operates seven Catholic elementary schools in the South Bronx and Harlem. Partnership recently signed a contract to expand into Cleveland, Ohio, where they're going to be initially managing two different schools and implementing their proven turnaround model. And then last but certainly not least is Darla Romfo. She's the President of the Children's Scholarship Fund, which administers 7,200 private-funded scholarships in the New York City area, and 500 scholarships in New Hampshire pursuant to their tax credit scholarship program. They also partner with 26 different organizations to provide scholarships, 26,000 of them across the nation. To give you a size ... a sense of their scope and size, since 1998 they have helped more than 180,000 children in America access the schools that fit their needs.

Andy Smarick:

Okay, last administrative plug here. I would like all of our participants, if you're watching at home, I would invite you to submit questions to the right of the video. I'm going to be monitoring these and trying to weave your questions in throughout the discussion over the next 53 minutes we have. So keep them coming, I'll keep my eye on them. Okay, enough of me. Let's start with Alex, if you don't mind. Would you mind starting by telling us a bit about how the pandemic economic shutdown, how has it influenced your schools and your families?

Alexandra Benjamin:

I think much of what you've already discussed during the intro, Andy, has definitely been related to how we've been affected over at ICS. But I think the most unique challenge that has been presented by the pandemic has really been the real lack of tech literacy that our families have. Whether because they don't have much experience actually using technology for learning, or don't have reliable access to WiFi in their neighborhoods, don't have access to devices. When we went into the extended closure, many of our families were left trying to figure out how to not only make sure that their students were engaging in learning at home, but also even how to figure out how to actually have a device in their home and access to WiFi to make sure that the learning was happening.

Alexandra Benjamin:

Another major way that ICS has been impacted by the pandemic was the tremendous loss of life. We have several students of families who have lost parents, grandparents, caretakers. And in addition to trying to figure out how to deal with the loss of this family member, that compiled with all of the other issues that were happening with the lack of technology definitely compounded the issue. And lastly, I think we definitely have to take a look at the fact that many of our students come to us with some real gaps. Our students don't always come to us reading on grade level, so there was a real academic challenge that COVID presented.

Alexandra Benjamin:

At ICS, our students who we were already really trying to fill in so many of those gaps and providing additional resources to help bring our students up to speed. And then when we had to shut down, families were left again at home trying to fill these gap and also make sure that they were able to provide for their families and deal with the loss. It's really been a very layered impact with a lot of different moving parts, and really what we've been trying to do is try to continue to provide high quality service and support to our families remotely during the time. So in many ways we have been able to be there for our families and do the right things to kind of help them get where they need to be.

Andy Smarick:

Well, that's terrific. Thank you so much for that. I just want to underscore these three points so we can come back to them, or so the viewers can keep these front of mine. Number one, in a lot of low income communities, we just can't take for granted that the shift to online learning is going to be seamless if there isn't WiFi access, if there aren't devices. You just can't flip a switch and make that happen. The second is a lot of low income students do have these learning gaps, and a loss of time in class is actually very meaningful for them. And the last is in underserved communities, so many families, there's a disproportionate amount of sickness, and then in some cases, fatalities.

Andy Smarick:

And so, all of these things are hitting disadvantaged schools in a profound way. This is real life for tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of kids in private schools. Okay, thank you so much for that. If you don't mind, I'll move on to Rabbi Seligson. If you don't mind, would you just tell us about the yeshivas that are part of your network and what COVID and the economic conditions have meant for you, and your families, and those schools?

Rabbi Motti Seligson:

COVID hit the Hasidic community particularly hard, as well as the broader Jewish community in New York City in particular. The yeshivas and Jewish private schools make up about 400 schools in New York City, and with about 160,000 students. That's more than 10% of the public school system. And the educational model that yeshivas have, particularly Hasidic schools, they really try to focus beyond just knowledge acquisition and helping young people develop with critical thinking skills. But also teach them to live, to live values based life with purpose. Many of these schools were built on the ashes of the Holocaust and came ... were new iterations built on these free lands from schools that were destroyed through Soviet oppression. They're fairly well equipped to deal with adversity and challenges. They're a central part of Jewish life and Hasidic life in the communities they serve, they're essentially the nervous system of these communities.

Rabbi Motti Seligson:

They try to be there for the families of these students, in many cases, who are dealing with poverty, not just as educational institutions, but also the social net for them that goes well beyond scholarships that they'd be providing for these families. So when the virus hit, it hit very early and very hard. The schools closed, I think it was March 13th, that's the week before public schools closed. And they shifted with this Herculean effort to online to virtual learning, in providing devices, tablets and laptops for families, sometimes five or ... with five or six children who may have not had them. And all while many of their teachers were hit by the virus and many of their staff were and they created this army of volunteers, really, that stepped in. I'm in Crown Heights right now where they're about 6,500 students, and across about 15 schools.

Rabbi Motti Seligson:

The role that the school saw themselves in was providing for the broader community, not just their student body, not just the families of their students. They really became food security centers for the community. One administrator told me that they were providing 600 lunches a day for pickup for people in the community, and all this is happening while revenue and tuition is down by about 30%. Those are some of the challenges that these schools are facing.

Andy Smarick:

Well, that's terribly helpful. Again, two points I just want to underscore here is, we cannot lose sight of the fact that these kinds of private schools, especially in urban areas, often in low income communities, they are woven into the fabric of the neighborhood and the community. And it's not as though a loss of one of these schools is just a loss of the school. It's a loss of a social service provider, a place that provides meaning. The other point is that it's not as though private schools are equally distributed geographically across America. It can be the case that in a neighborhood or in a corner of a city, private schools aren't just 10%, they could represent 25%, 30%, 40%, 50% of the student body.

Andy Smarick:

So if those schools become threatened, all of a sudden, that corner of the city can become threatened in new ways. So thanks for that Rabbi. Jill, you will soon be managing, if I get this right, nine different schools spread across two different states. So dealing with at least two different diocese or archdiocese. That also means if you're engaging with public policy, you're going to be dealing with two different states, as well all these needs of all these schools. So if you could just zoom out and give us a sense of your network and what you're working on. What do you need during this difficult time to make sure that you stay afloat and then can be stronger on the backside?

Jill Kafka:

Great. Well, thank you for having me. And we are really excited to be expanding, especially right now, into Cleveland, Ohio, and managing two schools starting there next month, actually. The need is actually huge across both geographies. Again, I think like Rabbi said, we are also a social net. These Catholic schools have been in their neighborhoods for generations and they do serve as a family wider than just a school. And so, what our priority is, is to support those families, and to support those students as best we can. I think as a network, we were able to do a lot pretty quickly. We actually had waived tuition for all the families so that they wouldn't have to worry about paying tuition at the same time as paying rent and buying food. We were able to pay our staff while we were out of school, and especially those hourly workers.

Jill Kafka:

And then we established a COVID Family Relief Fund where we were able to provide cash grants, and are still providing cash grants, to families for medical expenses or emergency expenses. Unfortunately, as Alex mentioned, we're actually having families with funeral expenses, which is absolutely heartbreaking and really difficult. It's not over and it's going to have a long tail, we know these struggles are going to continue and these families are going to continue to need our help. It's going to be tough paying tuition next year, and as you pointed out, we rely on philanthropy to make up that gap. Philanthropy has been amazing so far, I think we're going to have to double down on philanthropy so we're still going to need a lot of help philanthropically. And finding folks that want to help support these kids and these families and get through the crisis until we can get on the other side of it.

Jill Kafka:

But I think also, Andy, from the bigger picture of Catholic schools and private schools, we really need right now, folks to call their representatives and senators and ask and urge them to make sure private schools are going to get their fair share in the next COVID Relief Bill. That would be incredibly helpful for us to, again, maintain finances through the crisis. And then also more broadly, I'd say we need school choice in all 50 states. Families need the opportunity to send their child to a school that matches up to what their child needs and their family's values. I think now more than ever, families should have that opportunity. It would stabilize these schools for the long-term, and keep them open for another 164 years like Alex's school has been.

Andy Smarick:

Well, I think that's terrific. Something that I should have underscored at the beginning is the purpose of what we're talking about today is not to try to differentiate private schools from the great work that so many educators and public schools are trying to do. In effect, what we're saying is that private schools, which are often thought of on the side or subsidiary to what's actually happening, are providing many of the same services. Like you said, funeral costs and food services, and looking after kids who might be in foster care. And if we're talking about tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, a million kids, we need to make sure that we're looking out for all of these boys and girls, whether they're in public schools or private schools.

Andy Smarick:

And if the government has recognized that there needs to be some sort of aid to all types of schools, well, let's make sure that the private schools that are serving disadvantaged kids are able to take part in that too. Because their boys and girls need help just as much as anyone else. Okay, so let me just move on finally, Darla, last, like I said, but certainly not least. Jill did a good job of helping us transition to this idea of policy and what the right interventions are. So from your point of view, what should policy advocates and governing leaders know about the financial needs of the schools, but also the families and the kids, the communities that you're working with?

Darla Romfo:

Thank you, Andy. School choice is really about funding the families and the kids, and not the schools. The money goes to the schools for the kids. Like you mentioned, this has been a perfect storm of events and it's affected the economics of the family. Therefore, their ability to pay tuition is very deeply affected. In New York City, we have done a survey of our families. We have kids in Catholic schools, and Jewish schools, and independent schools, and all different kinds of private schools, and our families have been disproportionately affected. 80% of our families have lost income. But evenly distributed between losing a job or having their hours cut, 20% of our families have been directly impacted by the virus, 7% of them had somebody hospitalized, and again, the reference to people dying as well. It's been very disruptive, very frightening, and one of the things, though, that's been a bright spot for them is your schools.

Darla Romfo:

Our family save, about 90% of them give a four or five, an excellent or a good rating to their school and how it's performed during this whole time. Now, taking all that into account, even though their schools are doing so well and they're satisfied with them, two thirds of our schools, of those 250 schools that we're surveying are saying they're very worried about their financial liability in the Fall. And largely that is because the family's ability to pay tuition has been deeply impacted. The other things you mentioned too for Catholic schools, they lost ... They're supported by the church. The church, what they were taking in the parishes during this time has gone down by about 50%. But the biggest impact probably comes to the families and their inability to pay tuition. The relief that is needed is immediate, again, it's about funding the families.

Darla Romfo:

One of the things that has been discussed is immediate relief in the terms of whatever's in the stimulus package that goes to education. And as you noted, all the education sectors are going to need help. Whatever's in there, at least 10% of it should go to help the families that are going to private schools because that's how many kids are in private schools. Actually, in New York City it's a much higher percentage than that. Traditional public schools, I think, only educate about 72% of the kids. An additional number are in Charter schools, but a big percentage of kids in New York City are educated in these private schools. And it's not the high-end private schools, the average tuition is $5,500. Our families pay a part of the tuition even though they're getting scholarships from us. We've already kind of gone over it, you mentioned it at the beginning, it's not a good thing if these schools close.

Darla Romfo:

It'd be disruptive to the families, it goes against the whole narrative that we want to have a pluralistic education system. So we really need to get the immediate relief if we can, and then it's also an opportunity to look at more long-term relief. Jill mentioned that briefly, and actually the administration has proposed education freedom scholarships which would be a tax credit scholarship, a Federal Tax Credit scholarship program. That needs to be seriously considered and enacted, hopefully. Again, these are all our kids, these are the same kids. They're the same demographics as the kids that are in the public schools. It's not a time to differentiate based on where they're schooled. We're educating the public whether it's in a private school, a public school, they all need to be supported in the same way. None of these families need any more disruption or pain in their life.

Darla Romfo:

Believe me, as you mentioned, these schools are such an integral part of the communities and the families. It's really terrifying based that we had 25 pages of comments where people wrote these heart wrenching things about how important the school has been during this time. So yes, I would say the relief needs to be immediate, and there also needs to be a look to the long-term.

Andy Smarick:

Great. Thank you. We are starting to get a handful of questions coming in from the audience, and I encourage people to keep sending them in. They're great. Let me just begin with one, because I think it'll help set the context for the rest of the conversation. Which is, I want to give each of you the chance to give voice to, or give a response to something that we might hear from opponents of providing aid to private schools during this moment. It's something along the lines of, "Listen, there are 100,000 public schools in America right now. That's where the vast, vast, majority of students are. Those schools are in great need right now, why should policymakers and others care about private schools in this moment? Shouldn't they just give their attention where the vast majority of students are?" How do each of you respond to that to the extent you want to respond?

Darla Romfo:

Well, I'll just go back to what I said, that they're all our kids, they're the same kids. They're not any less important because they're only 10% of the total. Every child, if it's your child ... You tell that to one of the people that's disputing that this aid should go equitably, do they want their kid to not get the right education? No, nobody wants that for their kid, but they're so willing to say that it's okay for somebody else's kid. They're all our kids, they're all the same kids, the same demographics. I just don't see that that's a valid argument.

Alexandra Benjamin:

Same, and I would like to build off of what Darla just shared. I know specifically at ICS, we serve students in the poorest congressional district in the country. So who's to say that those children should not have access to continued high quality education in a place where they're safe and supported? Yeah, that argument just does not fare well here.

Jill Kafka:

Also, I think that the lot of these private schools were more nimble and more adaptable to the remote learning than a lot of the public schools were. So why should schools like that who were really able to help their families and help their kids and transition really, really, quickly, be left out?

Rabbi Motti Seligson:

I agree with all you, obviously, but I think the point that Darla made, let's look at them as children, and let's look at the future as well. And then there's another point of just simply ROI, there's so little expense that government provides to private schools on a regular basis, and just getting through this crisis is what we're talking about. Conversely, if these schools fail, the facts will be felt for a very, very, long time.

Andy Smarick:

That's right. If I can just add something, which is, I think we have to recognize that the Declaration of Independence makes this really profound point that it's the duty of the government to protect our rights, to protect our liberties. And we do that through separation of powers, we do that through individual rights. But we also have to recognize that a robust, diverse, mediating set of institutions, community-based organizations, faith-based, non faith based, but these are the places where people find meaning. They are the places that give us a place to go and attach our loyalties apart from just the Federal Government or instead of being atomized. In other words, part of our liberty, part of our happiness, is recognizing that there's a plurality of different types of organizations that we can love and be part of and get meaning from. And when a shock like this happens, it could be the case that a lot of schools end up disappearing and American pluralism suffers.

Andy Smarick:

They're just fewer of these organizations, and that's not good for America. And so the case that I'm trying to make is that if we believe that mediating institutions are valuable for American liberty, this could be a time for the Federal Government to say, "Yes, we might not provide ongoing support in perpetuity, but we want to make sure that these organizations survive. They're doing not just great educational things, but they're helping the fabric of America." We got a question, Jill, that pivoted off of something that you had just said, which is, is there evidence or even anecdotes of cases where it seems that some of these nimble private schools have been able to transition more smoothly and more clever ways? That is, have they navigated this in ways that maybe some of the bigger bureaucratic systems have not been able to? That is the transition to online learning or distance learning.

Jill Kafka:

Sure. Yes, I think is the answer. Part of it is because of what we're talking about, which is that because these schools were set up to embrace the families, the communications were really, really, strong. At our entire network, we were in communication with 100% of our kids. You hear stories of some of these public schools that only heard from 70%, and they were missing other children. And so, the fact that these schools were able to pivot really quickly, they were nimble, like we've talked about. We only missed one week where we sent home a packet for the week's worth of learning, and then we pivoted the next week to all remote learning. And we had to do that across kids that were three-years-old to 13-years-old, so we had to use a lot of different platforms. I think people think of Catholic schools as your grandma's Catholic school and you're not going to have the ability to be really technologically savvy.

Jill Kafka:

Even though our families didn't have devices, we made sure they got them quickly. And then we made sure that all the platforms we helped get them using really efficiently as quickly as possible. Yeah, I think private schools were able to do a better job. I'm sure Alex can probably speak to families that might have a child in public school and a child in one of our schools that heard from the school had morning meetings every day, had gym classes, art classes, music classes, faith and religion even, through these devices. It was pretty amazing.

Alexandra Benjamin:

Yeah, I definitely have to say that we really did respond quite quickly, like Jill said, a week out. And we were really working super hard to engage with our families and try to create some sense of support and normalcy even as far as doing wellness checks to every single family. And then especially for those who are directly impacted by COVID, whether it be through a loss of a family member, or someone who was hospitalized. Really making sure that we reached out to those families and made sure that, of course, not only are we concerned with the academic aspect, but we also wanted to make sure that they knew that we were here to support them and their well being as well. So I'm very proud of the way that we responded.

Darla Romfo:

I'd just like to add too, that we have kids in all different kinds of private schools. And our schools, 80% of them reported 90% to 100% attendance. Which is pretty incredible if you've been reading all the stories about how low the attendance rates have been. These are real numbers, they check with kids, they follow up. The parents confirm that they follow up if they're not there. That's a pretty amazing statistic, and it shows why the parents are so satisfied with these private schools. That's pretty amazing.

Rabbi Motti Seligson:

Andy, the schools in Crown Heights, actually, provided a very unique service to the community that I don't think happened anywhere else. Where the medical professionals in the community, the clinics, the doctors, worked through the schools because they're so integrated in the community in providing information to families. That's why they were able to close before everyone else because they felt there was that need, to the point where they're now collecting data on antibody rates within the community. And there's this loop that exists between medical professionals, social services, and education within the community. I don't think you see that anywhere else and that's something that only really private schools that are integrated in their communities are able to provide.

Andy Smarick:

Great. Darla, going back to something you had said, I think, during your opening, we had a question from the audience asking if you could restate the stats that you gave on parent economic impact and fears, just so other people can cite those in the future?

Darla Romfo:

Sure. 80% of our families said that they had had loss income, but evenly distributed between actually losing a job or having their hours reduced. That's pretty dramatic when you compare that to the general population. And then over two thirds of our schools indicated that they're concerned about their financial viability in the fall. When you put that against the fact that families are so satisfied with the product that they're getting, the fact that the schools have to be that concerned. That's one concern public schools don't have to have, that they're not going to be financially viable, they will open up again. So I think those are pretty dramatic pieces of information.

Andy Smarick:

That's great. Okay, another question we got was how can legislators ensure confidence for parents who are sending their children to private and religious schools, that the tax dollars that they give will be efficiently used in financing the CARES Act and whatever kind of future legislation comes out Federal Government. I think the point here is that there are families who send their kids to private schools and their tax dollars are going to the CARES Act. How do we make sure that this Federal legislation, make sure that the schools that they're sending their kids to are getting their fair share, that money is being spent well?

Darla Romfo:

Well, in terms of getting their ... the private schools get their fair share, again, going back to what Jill said, contact your ... There are obviously people that are not going to be for any money ever going to private schools. But at least if they make less noise and they hear from enough people who say, "We want this money to go to the kids." Again, school choice is about funding kids, it's not about funding the school. It just happens to be that parents would like to go to the school, but for the fact that they can afford it. It's very important to make your voice heard and let the people know who represent you that you care about this. It's important.

Jill Kafka:

Also, I'd add to that in terms of spending money efficiently. Catholic schools have always done this on a dime, we're spending about $10,000 per student versus public schools that $26,000. There's not a lot of fat in those numbers, we're really efficient in how we spend the money. So we would spend whatever government money we got as efficiently to try to deliver on a great education for our kids.

Andy Smarick:

Great. Let's get into the nitty gritty of operations of schools. Because what might be on some critics, or at least people that are curious about this issue, what might be on their minds is, how are private schools, especially those who are suffering financially, how are they going to be able to get ready for the unusual conditions that we're likely to see in September? Unusual being that things are uncertain. Whether it's the case that schools need to go to split schedules, or do more online learning, or parents are being interested in the hybrid homeschooling? How do we know that the private schools are going to be able to navigate this? What do you guys say to that?

Darla Romfo:

Well, I would say, and I'm not even a school operator here, but I was just listening to the results about how nimble and seeing what our parents say about how nimble the schools were in responding. Why are they not going to be nimble in doing this? I don't know. It's always interesting to me when people question the private schools, yet ... This isn't a private versus public, but the same thing, we've been getting the same bad results out of public schools for a very long time. We need to question that to instead of particularly questioning of private schools. I don't see why they're not going to be nimble and respond to them as well as they've responded to the education [inaudible 00:35:48].

Andy Smarick:

Can I be devil's advocate for a second, just push this a little bit more. What I can imagine someone saying is there are a lot of big school districts in America. It's not just New York, or Los Angeles, or Chicago, there could be a district that has 20 schools, 30 schools, 50 schools, 100 schools, and they just have a whole lot more central office staff. They have an entire department dedicated to IT, they have an entire department dedicated to curriculum development, they have an entire department dedicated to insert function here. People could say, "Well, those are going to be the institutions that are going to be best staffed and resourced to be able to navigate these crazy conditions ahead."

Darla Romfo:

I would say they've been the best staff and resource up to this point as well, and the results aren't there to show for it. I'm not even running a school, but I hear what our parents say and why they make the choice to go to one of the schools that Jill's operating, or that Alex is operating. But I'll let them talk about this because they have the [inaudible 00:36:49].

Andy Smarick:

Alex, how does this land on you?

Alexandra Benjamin:

I would have to say that we are quite fortunate in that we are pretty well resourced when it comes to having back office staff around operations, academic planning, general management of facilities and school buildings throughout the closure. Being a part of our Partnership School really does afford us those resources. And so, I think that our experience has really been that we've been pretty strongly planned around how to make sure that we're abiding by health and safety, health and safety mandates. Making sure that the academic planning continues to be sound, and rigorous, and in line with what we believe about how students learn best.

Alexandra Benjamin:

As well as the operations, we're pretty much continuing to operate, it's just that we're not in person. Not only have we been nimble around making sure that our students are continuing to learn and engage, but I would say also as a person operating a school in the network, we've also been pretty nimble in keeping the operations and the general management of our schools going as well. I think that we're actually well prepared come September to put our resources in the right place and continue to provide quality education for our students. We're already thinking about it and I'm confident that we'd be ready to go.

Andy Smarick:

Great.

Jill Kafka:

We just don't know yet, so we're planning for a lot of different scenarios that might be split schedules, that might be alternating days. We don't know, so it's just really hard, and we don't want to make a decision too quickly. Alex, we were talking yesterday, she's getting a ton of questions from parents. It's really hard to say that you don't know what it's exactly going to be like, but we're planning for all of them and we'll be able to pivot to whichever one is going to make the most sense.

Rabbi Motti Seligson:

I think the terms that many of us are using as nimble, and that's something that that everyone's been forced to do. And as Jill just mentioned, the lack of clarity from the government, especially in New York which we saw with Sleepaway Camps, at basically the last moment they said they're not happening, are something that everyone going to need to deal with. And what happens in the Fall is still very unclear. Top heavy organizations or institutions have their advantages, but they also have their drawbacks. One advantage is that smaller institutions, particularly schools that are well integrated into their communities, that they're nimble. One thing that we saw when the schools closed mid March was how people stepped up within the community in any way they could.

Rabbi Motti Seligson:

One example was just getting those devices to families. There were people in the community who are in the refurbishing business and just donated all these devices. Another thing that smaller institutions are very successful at is making sure that they're bringing everyone along with them, and no one gets lost in the process. Which is something that the top or the top heavy institutions struggle with.

Andy Smarick:

Great. We got two questions that are similar, both responding to the [inaudible 00:40:33]. Some of the things that are going on related to protests and incidents of police violence and questions about racial injustice. So let me ask both of the questions, and each of you can respond to whichever piece of whichever question, but they seem to go together to me. The first question was, how can private schools and public schools in this debate that we're having right now impact the discussion currently going on concerning race and poverty in urban areas? The second one was school choice used to be a bipartisan issue, but increasingly it seems that it's just supported by conservatives. And so, this raises questions about social justice and social justice movement and advocacy. How do we make sure that we amplify the voices involved in the school choice world who care about social justice and equality? There's a lot there tied together. Whoever wants to tackle a piece, please.

Darla Romfo:

On the second question, I go to the example in Florida. Florida has the largest scholarship granting program, tax granted scholarship program. It's around 100,000 kids, I think it's $800 million. It's was very much a bipartisan effort and it continues to be one of the interesting things. That in the last election, it was actually a lot of African-American black moms that [inaudible 00:41:51] because they realized that their schools might go away. Their option to send their kid to a private school might go away if the election went the other way. I think there are a lot of voices that a silent majority [inaudible 00:42:05], voices that on this issue had said, "Wait a second." When you get a critical mass of people like that and they were [inaudible 00:42:14], it is possible to speak out. Maybe it's different voices that need to to lead the effort, but it is possible to see how there is support across a whole range of different kind of people [inaudible 00:42:29] of school choice.

Andy Smarick:

I agree and I think what we've ... one thing we did on our teams, we put one person full-time on communications. Because we knew that this was a really important moment to talk about choice, and private schools, and options. And push the voices up and gather the voices together to really try to amplify that conversation about choice. It may be that this is that crisis that can push that, and I think the voices have to include parents and folks that are alumni of the schools and a whole ... everyone in those communities that's impacted by them.

Rabbi Motti Seligson:

In the Hasidic community, the schools really are a unifying place. It's a place where you have people from up and down the socio-economic ladder, students in the same classroom. With regards to race and the other issues that are being raised in the national conversation at the moment, I think from my experience in Hasidic schools, the way students are taught is that ... how you see another individual, and that ties in with your own purpose in life. And seeing the potential of every other person in making this world together a better place. It's something that, I think, is integral and it's also an inspiring message that carries through what's really been a very divisive conversation.

Alexandra Benjamin:

I would say as a school leader, I know that we have definitely began to engage in some really strong discussion about how to ensure that our schools are places where, first of all, that reflect the communities that we serve. But also are places where students can come and feel included and receive an equitable experience. That includes even going as far as training staff and really having some conversation about policies and different programming that we need to add to what we already have happening on a daily basis to ensure that we are really doing the work to do our part as part of the conversation.

Andy Smarick:

We got one question that's, I think, largely about Return On Investment. Which is, I think, something that a lot of legislators, government officials, will be thinking about. How do we know that private parochial schools are going to get good results with this money? Is there any evidence that these private schools are doing as well or even better than their comparable public schools? Maybe Jill and Alex, you actually run a set of schools that have some pretty good results on this. Does anyone want to weigh in either on the aggregate data that's been collected over time or these anecdotal cases of great schools and networks?

Jill Kafka:

Sure. Our schools, we always say we do it a twice as well for half as much. Because I think in Alex's neighborhood, her school's performing double in test scores than the local public schools are. She's sending kids on to incredible high schools throughout the city, and we're still seeing those results get better. I think Catholic schools have a history. I know, Darla, you guys have done some studies on success rates of these Catholic schools and the schools that you all support to show that there are academic results that can be better, and long-term life outcomes that are better for a lot of these kids because they attended one of these schools.

Alexandra Benjamin:

We get numerous cases of students who may make a decision to leave and then come back to our schools. Overwhelmingly what we hear from parents is that our students, when they go off to these other schools, they realize the level of rigor that students are engaged in on a daily basis in their content areas. The quality of instruction that their students are getting at our school when compared to some of the other alternatives, and also the support, the related services that our students have access to at ICS. Families are really making the choice to send their students back to us because they're realizing that that's where their students were thriving. And so, I think that speaks a lot for the work that we're doing.

Andy Smarick:

One question came in asking whether or not private schools are going to be able to do the necessary testing of kids, and their parents, and educators, to make sure that whatever kind of restrictions from the state are still in place, that these schools are going to be safe and not places where kids are going to be either getting sick or transmitting illness. Do you have protocols in place in the schools that you're working with? Have you thought through this? How do you test and make sure that these are safe for kids and adults?

Jill Kafka:

We're gathering a lot of information right now. There are so many people putting out a lot of resources that are either checklists or all kinds of things that are being shared among a lot of educators right now, and in schools and networks to help them do that. I think as we absorb all that and put plans together, I'm pretty confident we're going to follow them and we're going to adapt as we go. And make sure that we're doing the right thing and we're keeping everyone safe.

Rabbi Motti Seligson:

I think many schools, again, from the perspective in Brooklyn, in Crown Heights. The Hasidic schools in the neighborhood are well beyond this conversation, to the point where they have rich data on what's happened. I don't think there are other communities in the United States that has that kind of deep data, and beyond that, they've actually been helping the medical community. Whether it's the NIH or other institutions in gathering the, for instance, plasma for research as well as for therapies. But they're obviously very concerned about transmission of the virus in the future and how to protect against it.

Andy Smarick:

If you don't mind, let me just ... We're about 10 minutes from our conclusion, let me ask a final big question that zooms out some, like trying to take the longer view. If leaders in government in particular, if they want a vibrant private schools community in the years to come, what would you advise them, especially related to some of these policy questions related to school choice? Do you have views on particular approaches, whether it's a tax credit program at the state level, or the Federal level, which has been discussed as part of the next phase of potential Federal activity?

Andy Smarick:

There's a Supreme Court case Espinoza decision that is pending that could weigh in on Blaine Amendments and whether or not states can exclude faith-based organizations from programs that make dollars or services available to a wide array of secular organizations. In general, what I'm do is give you the opportunity to say, "Yes, we should look at this as a particular crisis that we need to solve but in the context of a larger issue that's going to last years. How do we make sure that these schools and the students they serve are well served in perpetuity?" So any thoughts about these policy interventions?

Darla Romfo:

Well, I do think that there has to be something immediate. I know we have to look long-term too, but this is a crisis and there has to be something immediate. I think, Jill, everybody's kind of touched on that. Whatever happened in terms of relief for education in general, 10% of it should go to the private schools. It is an opportunity too to look at the longer view, whether or not Espinoza changes everything through [inaudible 00:50:43] amendments or just changes it for Montana. I know [inaudible 00:50:46] who really gets most of these cases, they're pretty successful and everyone that they litigate on a state basis. Things are definitely moving in the right direction, there're 500,000 kids on publicly funded choice right now across the country, but it's still too small a number. But yes, this is the moment in time to rethink old arguments and come back to it's about the kids.

Jill Kafka:

I think the Catholic Church can play a role. I know Cardinal Dolan has been very active recently trying to influence and make this known and get people to really rally around getting this money both short-term and longer term for these schools. That has to continue, and the more leadership of the church and all religions can can speak up, I think the better.

Andy Smarick:

Great. Well, in these last few minutes we have left, I'd like to give each of you a couple of minutes just to say whatever else is on your mind, or thoughts that have come to you during this discussion. Alex, if you don't mind, I'll start with you. As people are tuning out of this and moving on to their day-to-day lives, what would you like to leave them with? What should they remember? What should they think about?

Alexandra Benjamin:

I'd say the first being that many of the private and parochial schools that we're referring to today have been mainstays in their communities for a very long time. ICS specifically has educated generations of families for 164 years. Our superintendent's mother went to ICS, so that just gives you an idea of the impact that our school and church has on the community. And we are a multi dimensional school, we do not only educate students on content, but we also really are looking to create young citizens who are going to go out into the world with the habits and mindsets, and skills, that they need in order to serve others and their communities with a strong faith base. These schools need to continue to be in the communities serving, because once they leave, they won't be back. And so many of our families rely on us not only for education, but to really be a source of solace and support in the community. So it's really, really, important that we keep our schools vibrant and thriving.

Andy Smarick:

Thank you. Rabbi, thoughts?

Rabbi Motti Seligson:

Thank you. The government has a huge stake and indeed responsibility in education, because education is really what dictates the health of our society. And the investment in education, especially in private schools, has enormous return on investment in preventing crime, in lifting people out of poverty, and also keeping families intact. The cost of private schools is very little, and they're in crisis right now. With relatively very little investment, they could ... the government could head off far reaching issues that will last certainly for years, and perhaps decades, if schools fail.

Andy Smarick:

Jill?

Jill Kafka:

I'm going to probably just be pretty repetitive. First of all, thank you for having this event today, and thank you for Manhattan Institute because it's such an important topic. This has been a once in a lifetime crisis, but I also think it's an opportunity. We know, again, as everyone said, that these schools are so important to their communities, and they have that cohesion, they bring their communities together, but they're not ... their sustainability is not guaranteed. And so, if they go away, as everyone said, they're not going to come back. It would be a shame if any of these schools closed and wouldn't be able to continue their historic success and educating kids in the neighborhood. I'm hopeful, I hope and think we can all rise up. We can all do something to make sure that these schools not only are temporarily saved, but that they are sustained for the long term so they can keep providing hope and opportunity for children for generations to come.

Andy Smarick:

Terrific. Darla?

Darla Romfo:

I would just say, within every one of these schools are hundreds of kids, and that's what this is really all about. Every kid has a name, parents, they have dreams, they have potential. We don't want to squander dreams, and potential, and lives. And so, whenever you're thinking what's the right thing to do, the right thing to do is to help these kids now. I would say that philanthropy, government, whatever we need to do right now to not have any more disruption in the life of people who have already had horrible disruption in their lives. [inaudible 00:55:56] for the rest of America, you need to do it.

Andy Smarick:

The only thing I would just add to this is there's something fundamentally American, I think, of making sure that there are a wide array of organizations that are doing different things, especially in education, that can serve the great diversity of this country. There's a reason why the First Amendment has a right to assemble in it, and Toquerville talked about all of these small communities coming together. And why we've had different types of organizations doing social services, and schools, and all types of civic-minded things. There's something American about making sure that there's a robust civil society that is diverse, so we can all feel that we're at home in our communities with geographic, and then more philosophical. But also be part of this greater nation.

Andy Smarick:

I just don't think America is served well if we allow a whole bunch of schools and school networks to disappear just because of a crisis. It makes the tapestry of the American civil society poorer, and I don't think any of us benefit from that. Unless anyone else has anything you left to say, let me just thank Alex, and Rabbi Motti, and Darla, and Jill, for your time. For all of our viewers, we really appreciate it. Thanks for taking an hour to spend with us. Hope you join us for the next event along these lines. Thanks, everyone. Take care.

Darla Romfo:

Thank you.

Rabbi Motti Seligson:

Thank you.

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