On Tuesday the U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, released the application for the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund.
Governor Polis has access to $44 million to direct where he sees the most impact from COVID-19 on educational services. By including K-12 private schools in the CARES ACT, Congress recognizes the critical role these schools play in the educational ecosystem, and so should our governor. Hundreds of newly unemployed low-income parents can’t afford tuition payments to the school that gives them hope for their children to receive a quality education. Additionally, spring fundraisers have been cancelled. Some schools are struggling to make payroll.
Many nonpublic schools may not be able to open their doors this fall. And without emergency assistance, it will be the already overextended public-education system that will have to bear the burden of serving potentially thousands of new students displaced from these schools.
In tune with the education secretary’s goal to give states more control over federal education dollars, there is some flexibility with the Governor’s fund. Protecting education-related jobs is an allowable expenditure. Protecting jobs for private school educators will simultaneously benefit public school teachers who will be under additional strain if they have to absorb a considerable number of new students.
It is estimated that Colorado will receive another $121 million from the CARES Act Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund to distribute to local public school districts. Districts must provide “equitable services” to Colorado’s K-12 private schools that choose to participate in the program.
Some may question federal support for nonpublic school teachers and students, but it is actually business as usual. The federal government already serves the private K-12 sector by funding “equitable services” through local districts.
The 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), a key component of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” required that these federal equitable services be offered to nonpublic schools. The intent of the law was to help provide all low-income students equal access to a quality education.
After reauthorization under President Obama, it became the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and a new provision was added. Each state is now required to designate an ombudsman to ensure that school districts are contacting nonpublic schools to offer them equitable services through six different ESSA programs. These ombudsmen will play an especially critical role in the allocation of resources under the CARES Act.
Nonpublic schools do not receive actual funds through the equitable services program but instead private school students and teachers benefit from a variety of services. For example, a public school district may purchase musical instruments for a private or parochial school, but the district remains the owner of the instruments. Districts often pay for nonpublic school teachers to receive professional development courses or particular school-wide trainings. In the 2018-19 school year, about one-third of Colorado’s private schools participated in the program.
Sometimes, the services could be even more integral. In one visit to a Denver Catholic elementary school that serves low-income children, I was introduced to a reading teacher who was a Denver Public School’s employee. She had provided additional reading instruction at the school for a decade.
Federal support for private schools doesn’t end with ESSA. The Emergency Impact Aid for Displaced Students Program and the Nonprofit Security Grant Program also both award grants to nonpublic schools. Many Colorado private schools also participate in federal breakfast and lunch programs.
Governor Polis has an extensive background in K-12 education and, I believe, understands that a variety of school options makes for a healthy educational environment for both children and families. One way to help preserve Colorado’s nonpublic school options is for the governor to send assistance directly to non-profit organizations that support nonpublic schools, such as K-12 scholarship granting organizations. Colorado is home to four such organizations that could, with additional funds, help fill the immediate need of tuition assistance for disadvantaged families.
In many areas in our state, private and public schools have already formed friendly partnerships that focus on children, not systems. The current crisis should create a greater number of partnerships as we all seek to help our neighbors and communities. Nonpublic school students could benefit from access to public school online courses and private school teachers could benefit from distance learning training. Both should qualify under either emergency education fund.
CARES Act K-12 funds can help reduce the crushing impact of COVID-19 on low-income nonpublic school children. Many private schools do heroic work for low-income children who otherwise would face dim educational prospects. These schools are a vital thread within the delicate tapestry of Colorado’s educational landscape. If the thread breaks, we will all feel the impact.
Pamela Benigno is the director of the Education Policy Center at the Independence Institute in Denver.