COLUMBIA — With most of South Carolina’s public schools reopening without a full week in the classroom, some parents are newly turning to private schools for their child’s education.
After schools statewide closed in mid-March, private school leaders assumed they’d lose students to public schools this fall. A survey released in April estimated they’d collectively lose more than $30 million from parents no longer able to afford tuition.
That’s no longer expected.
Enrollment across South Carolina’s 32 Catholic diocese schools has stabilized after being down in June, said spokeswoman Maria Aselage.
But some other private schools from the Piedmont to the Lowcountry are reporting a rise in the number of students.
“Some schools will be down and some will be up, depending on where it’s at and how public schools have reacted,” said Edward Earwood, director of the state Association of Christian Schools.
Its 65 members include Carolina Christian Academy in Lancaster, where enrollment is already up by 25 percent, to 260 students in 4K to 12th grade. And, with some classrooms already at capacity, tours for potential new parents still average four daily, its administrator, Huey Mills, said Thursday.
“If the public schools had opened and operated in a normal fashion, I wouldn’t be seeing those people,” said the pastor who helped found Lancaster’s only private school in 1996. “They wouldn’t be ringing my phone.”
The school will open Aug. 17 on a traditional schedule of in-classroom instruction, with no virtual option.
Like many school districts, Lancaster County is opening with a hybrid schedule that divides students into two groups. Each comes to the school two days weekly and learns online the other three. The hours for its elementary, middle and high schools are staggered since state guidelines limit school buses to two-thirds capacity.
“Parents call me up and ask, ‘Are you operating five days a week?’ Yes. ‘Normal hours?’ Yes,” Mills said. “Then I hear, ‘I’ll be there shortly.”
The public school schedule means teachers, working five days a week, have to figure out somewhere for their children to go for the three days they’re in virtual mode, said Debra Huey, a jobs coach at Lancaster High whose special-needs daughter attends Carolina Christian.
“I can’t take her with me,” she said of her rising seventh grader. “A lot of people are running into that. They have to work. If the daycares are full, unless they have family — grandma who can pop in — it is a problem.”
In Charleston, Mason Preparatory School has definitely seen an uptick in applications over the last couple of weeks, said Head of School Timothy Spurrier, who couldn’t even guess at the number of tours occurring daily.
He’s had to cap some grades and start waiting lists, to allow for social distancing in classrooms “as best as we can.”
The school year kicks off Aug. 24 with half-days, to include orientation of new protocols amid COVID-19. The full-week schedule for in-person instruction begins Aug. 31. About 20 percent of parents chose the virtual option, said Spurrier, who moved from Hawaii to take the school’s helm July 1.
“Admissions is very busy. People who were on the fence are beginning to look at it,” he said, though he plans to keep enrollment at 270 students.
The uptick coincides with Charleston County School District approving its reopening plans, which vary by school and start students Sept. 8 with as little as one day in the classroom weekly.
Northside Christian Academy in Lexington, which is opening on a traditional five-day schedule, received more than 200 new applications this summer. Classes have been capped, and there’s a waiting list for most grades, despite adding several classes, said Lower School Principal Michelle Brewer.
“Our phones were flooded the day after the public school announcements were made,” she said of the hybrid plans for all five of the Lexington County districts.
Gov. Henry McMaster’s spokesman said the transfers were predictable.
Last month, the Republican governor called on all school districts to give parents a five-days-a-week, in-person option and suggested pushing back opening day until Sept. 8 — the day after Labor Day — to better prepare. But his request was immediately met by opposition from advocates for school boards, administrators and teachers, who have protested coming back amid South Carolina’s high COVID-19 case numbers.
State schools chief Molly Spearman, who must approve every back-to-school plan, instead required bringing students in at least one day weekly. Of the 67 plans she’s approved so far, 12 received her official OK despite starting in a virtual-only mode. But they’re supposed to switch to their hybrid plan no later than Sept. 14.
“We expected (parents) to be frustrated with the lack of a choice, which is why the governor pushed for a full, five-days-a-week option in each district,” said McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes. “It naturally follows that they’d look for an alternative.
“You’ve got parents who’ve got to get back to work,” he added. “They’re put in a position they’re having to choose between their child’s education and their own jobs.”
Also last month, McMaster designated $32 million from a federal COVID-19 fund he controls for private school tuition. The program, designed to give parents a one-time voucher of up to $6,500 per student, has been blocked by a lawsuit. If he wins, he will have accomplished through federal pandemic money what advocates have tried, unsuccessfully, to push through the Legislature for 16 years.
In South Carolina, about 70,000 students attend private K-12 schools, compared to roughly 780,000 public school students. While tuition at the state’s highest-price private schools can top $20,000 yearly, the average is $6,100 for elementary schools and $7,100 for high schools.
Western Washington University history professor Johann Neem, an expert on America’s public schools, said he worries the collision of longstanding GOP goals on private school choice with parents’ immediate needs in a crisis could erode support for public education.
Across the nation, parents with the financial means to do so are choosing between homeschooling, paying for private schools, hiring private tutors or getting together with other parents to hire a teacher for a “pod” of students, Neem said.
“Parents are trying to do what’s right for their children in a tough situation,” he said. “My fear is, if a lot of parents start opting out and say, ‘This works for me, and I can provide my kids what I want,’ then we’ll end up with a system” that harkens back to the 18th century of education being a private responsibility, leaving “charity schools for people left behind.”
There would have to be a sizable shift for that to happen, said Neem, the author of “Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America.”
The opposite is also possible, Neem said.
“There’s another possibility that we’ll say to ourselves, ‘Wow! We really need those schools,’ and our commitment will be greater, and we’ll want to reinvest as we find out how dependent we are on public schools,” he said.
Adam Benson contributed to this report.
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