An Educational Opportunity Ripe for the Taking


In the latest episode of his podcast, The Art of Happiness, Harvard professor (and former American Enterprise Institute CEO) Arthur Brooks talks about the importance of taking times of crisis and transition as an opportunity to grow, to find meaning, and to create a more secure foundation for your life going forward.  The key to the process is pausing to evaluate who you truly are and what you’re trying to accomplish with your actions.

COVID-19 is providing this opportunity for us as individuals and as a society.  Take particular note of two statements from a recent WPRI article in which Courtney Carter describes the recent enrollment experience of one local private school. First:

Diane Rich, head of the Rocky Hill Country Day School in East Greenwich, tells 12 News they prepped for months prior to their first day to move all of their classrooms outside.


“This year, because of the pandemic, as soon as the public schools announced their plans, we saw an extra wave of interested families who wanted their children at school all day,” said Jan Cooney, the school’s director of admissions and financial aid. “So we saw a lot, disproportionate in a positive way, number of students coming from public school this year.”

A college friend of mine who lives in Massachusetts recently complained that the children of his friends in Florida have been back in school for weeks, while New England continues to withhold services to one degree or another.  The increase in demand for private schools in our area shows that plenty of people share his complaint, and as I’ve written before, people with the resources can supplement services when government falls short.

But that shouldn’t be how this works.  If we, as a community, agree that we’re collectively going to pay for top-notch education, then we ought to get it.  Objectively, however, what we’ve actually agreed to pay for is this:

Rhode Island is the best state for public school teachers. While the NCTQ graded the state well overall for teacher quality. People in the teaching profession are paid well in the state, with an average annual salary of $74,414, the seventh highest in the country and the highest after adjusting to the cost of living.

Rhode Island public school teachers also benefit from one of the nation’s more coherent and generous retirement systems. About 59.0% of new teachers in Rhode Island will likely remain in the profession long enough to qualify for a pension benefit, the seventh highest share of all states.

None of the five criteria that Hristina Byrnes and Thomas Frohlich used to create their 24/7 Wall St. is a measure of educational success, but they do rank graduation rates.  That is Rhode Island’s lowest rank, at 19th worst in the country.

Note that this ranking entirely (or at least mostly) applies to unionized public-school teachers.  Private schools are able to offer nowhere near the level of compensation that the government does, and yet as the first quotation above shows, private institutions put in extra work to make themselves viable and attractive.

Our state and its education system were far from stable when the pandemic hit, and we can create something good from our current predicament if make this a period of transition, rather than of making due until we can get back to the same old, dysfunctional thing.

  • Joe Smith

    Seriously Justin? I’d have thought you’d do a little more analysis before just passing this on.

    First, it’s not quite apples to apples. Private schools in RI received taxpayers subsidies in the usual ways (paid for transportation and textbooks). The former is especially crucial this year given transportation is one of the major logistical “choke points” in getting kids back in schools. Even with the reduced bus capacity that dramatically impacts public schools, it has no impact on private schools as parents already provide or the public districts just have to pay more. Nice headstart.

    Second – the new corporate subsidy. PPP load. Ah yes, let’s look at Rocky Hill.

    ROCKY HILL COUNTRY DAY SCHOOL received a Paycheck Protection Loan of between 1M and 2M through The Washington Trust Company of Westerly, which was approved in April, 2020.

    Hmm..back in April..$1M-$2M (let’s say 1.5M) — for a school of under 300 students. Oh, and it’s basically a grant as long as they kept the people employed. So, back in the summer it’s no wonder the school said “we can probably make in-person work” — no transportation issues and $1.5M or so of free money (well taxpayer money) to make it work.

    Let’s see — what did public schools get. PPP – no (well except charters, that’s another issue!). COVID money – no, Gov took the $50M and supplanted it by deducting FY 20 state aid to balance FY 20. New money — finally, but it hasn’t been doled out yet (application not even opened until Aug 25 — way to late to do anything to affect school start plans.

    Oh, and private schools — not subject to annual security plans (I would not wish a school shooting on any school, public or private – but do you think a public school with a plan of tents down by the river would have passed muster (despite the fantasy of our Gov about tents)?

    Geez, $1,5M and all they came up with was tents?

    Hmm..we can’t prove the counter-hypothesis — what if EVERY school got the proportional equivalent of $1.5M grant like Rocky Hill. Warwick said they need $15M — well, 18 schools, even if we make it the same as Rocky HIll, that’s 27M to Warwick. Well, let’s give 27M to Warwick in April and THEN see if they got all kids back in school (or at least said they could).

    Right, all this shows is if you subsidize a school significantly, you should get “quantity supplied” increased (kind of basic microeconomics)

    In fact, it’s a bit interesting if you look through all the PPP that RI privates got tens of millions and enrollment is only up 10%.

    2008 (RIDE Data)
    Public enrollment – 145K (2K is 9 charter schools)
    Private (all types) – 53K

    2019 (RIDE Data)
    Public enrollment – 143k (9k is now among 21 charters)
    Private (all types) – 10K

    So private schools have lost 80% despite public enrollment only falling 2%. Even if you give ALL new charters as just private school migration, that’s still 70% loss.

    If private schools were just a great value argument, why did enrollment drop so much?

    Again, all this shows is if you give corporate subsidies, you get some increase in sales, business, etc. What if we gave public schools 300M and covered their transportation – then you might have a fair discussion about whether there is a truly a “demand” shift because ALL schools would have been operating from the same funding advantage.

    • Justin Katz

      I appreciate your thoughtful response, but I don’t find the arguments entirely on point. The differing attitudes between public and private schools has been, all on its own, observable, subsidies or not. Most of it is a predictable manifestation of two different cultures: one in which it is possible to go out of business and the other in which job security is taken as owed.

      As to those subsidies, it’s strange to present partial subsidization of private schools as some sort of an unfair advantage versus fully subsidized public schools, which tend to operate at much greater spending per student on an ongoing basis.

      Regarding heavier regulations on public schools, well, that is part of the system, not some unavoidable, external factor. That is, it is just specific evidence for the proposition that we’re going about things wrong.

      And finally, on the question of enrollment drops. You’ve left out the effects of the Great Recession on a state that never fully recovered its employment thereafter. Every family that could no longer afford tuition on top of taxes (which only go up) counts twice in your analysis: once for leaving private schools and once for entering public schools. I’d also hypothesize that the sort of family that had been choosing private schools (whether as a lifestyle matter or out of distrust of the public schools) would be more likely than the average to move to another state when economic reality took that option away in Rhode Island.

      In all of this, I should note that the public school system as a whole is not a reflection on individual teachers, some of whom did in fact spend the summer trying to prepare and would have done more if the system had created the conditions for it.

      • Joe Smith

        I’m not “criticizing’ the subsidization. I may object to things like paying people more “not to work” (the PUA) or the fact PPP loans were rushed through (and a very costly way to keep jobs) without a lot of accountability (I suppose that’s still TBD as I haven’t seen reviews of whether some PPP loans were not forgiven (like charter schools that were already guaranteed public money). However, it was what is was.

        However, I am saying the point that somehow COViD19 shows the nimbleness of private schools in responding to shortfalls in the public education sector is faulty because it ignores the subsidization. It ignores the transportation issue.

        What would have been shocking is if you didn’t see any change in private school enrollment given the subsidies.

        Yes, there are factors behind the fall in private (mostly religious) enrollment; economic as you point out; the identity crisis that some have when it comes to downplaying the religious component when it matters (like Prout or MSC), the subsidization of charter schools, which compete for essentially the same households.

        But again, let’s not hold this up as some situation where private schools “shine” in the face of crisis. District where I have property concern got everyone back (who wanted) except the one large school (and that was due to the Gov’s restrictions on space and busing) and offered a separate virtual system for $1M “extra” and it hasn’t gotten a dime yet. So when a single 300 student school gets $1.5M, I’m hardly impressed it was able to get everyone back and lure 10% more enrollment when a district with 10 times the size did the same (offered essentially full parental choice of in person or fully distance) for less new taxpayer money.

        PS – Would the kind of PPE Loan subsidies to charters and private be exactly the kind of corporate welfare that you usually rail against? It’s one thing to argue for vouchers or choice, but vastly different to just give massive grants to private schools without tied to any educational outcomes (just don’t fire anyone).