Cara Candal, Ed.D., is the Director of Educational Opportunity for ExcelinEd focusing on private school choice.
At the bitter end of 2020, Congress passed the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSA). Like its predecessor, the CARES Act, CRRSA supplies billions in funding for K-12 schools, institutions of higher education (IHEs), and childcare providers. This aid is important for schools across the country. Unfortunately, it won’t reach millions of low-and middle-income students who have struggled over the past year to access the education to which they are entitled.
The CRRSA includes $54.3 billion for state education agencies to distribute to K-12 public schools and $4.05B in flexible funds that governors can use to support schools, students, and education-related entities. Unlike the CARES Act, this new package specifies that governors should set aside $2.75B of their funding (Governor’s Emergency Education Relief, or GEER funding) to “stabilize” non-public schools that serve the most vulnerable students. This “set-aside” allows schools to apply for funds to pay for personal protective equipment, sanitization, technology related to remote learning, and COVID testing, among other things. It is unprecedented for the federal government to recognize non-public schools in this way. Still, the legislation doesn’t go far enough.
Unlike most district schools, many non-public schools have been safely offering full-time, face-to-face instruction since September. These schools have spent large sums of money to ensure compliance with Center for Disease Control re-opening guidelines. In the process, many have incurred large budget deficits. This is in part because, nine months later, far too many of these schools are still waiting to receive the equitable services the CARES Act required districts to provide to their non-public counterparts.
The CRRSA will help private schools pay for COVID-related expenses, but it bars governors from making direct payments to families and from providing tuition assistance to help families remain enrolled in the non-public schools they’ve chosen. There is only one exception: governors who used CARES money to directly support families and/or children in all schools, including non-public schools, may continue to do so with this new funding.
This means that students in Oklahoma and New Hampshire, where Governors Stitt and Sununu used GEER funds to provide tuition tax-credit scholarships for students to attend private schools, will be empowered to continue learning in the environments that work for them. Likewise, parents in Oklahoma and Idaho may be eligible for direct payments—funded with GEER money—to access technology, curricular supplements, and online learning programs that can help stem the learning loss associated with long-term school closures. In Oklahoma, in addition to supplementing tax-credit scholarships, Governor Stitt launched a direct payment program called the Bridge the Gap Digital Wallet. Governor Little of Idaho implemented a similar program called Strong Families, Strong Students. Parents in these states will have educational options. Unfortunately, parents in 47 states won’t, unless they have the money to pay for supplemental educational services or their state has a private school choice program that isn’t oversubscribed.
The legislation also hamstrings non-public schools in another way by preventing them from accepting both Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funds and stabilization funds. PPP funds from the CARES program were one of the only things that kept many non-public schools, particularly those that serve majority low-income students, afloat throughout the spring and summer of 2020, as parents lost jobs and were unable to make final tuition payments. Facing declining tuition revenue and uncertainty about reopening in the Fall, schools used PPP funds to pay salaries and were able to reallocate any remaining money to COVID mitigation to facilitate reopening. These uncertainties have not gone away. Parents who formerly paid tuition continue to struggle financially, and some parents who chose non-public schools in the fall of 2020 may return to their local district upon reopening. This newest round of aid could present non-public schools with an impossible choice: preserve the teaching workforce or safely remain open.
Skeptics will ask why non-public schools deserve tax-payer support at all, as most children in this country attend traditional district schools. The answer is simple: especially during this moment of crisis, when this nation confronts unprecedented learning loss that will almost certainly lead to long term economic decline, policymakers should be thinking about all students and families, regardless of where they prefer to attend school.
There is a dangerous misconception in this country that non-public schools exist solely for the wealthy. The truth is many non-public schools, especially in urban centers, have long-standing traditions of serving families who cannot afford to pay tuition. In Florida alone, more than 150,000 low-income families attend private schools using a scholarship. Families seek non-public options when zoned schools don’t work for their children. During the pandemic, thousands of families have sought non-public schools because their districts offered no or little instruction in the spring and/or only offered virtual or hybrid instructional models in the fall. Some district schools dramatically improved virtual and hybrid learning in the fall of 2020, but these options don’t work for too many children. Students with special educational needs—many of whom suffered learning gaps before the pandemic—are particularly vulnerable.
While not all parents are comfortable sending their children to school during this pandemic, fall 2020 enrollment upticks in some non-public schools, particularly those offering consistent live instruction, indicated that many parents are. Parents that chose this route (many of them with the financial means to do so) likely had trepidation about what could happen. But forced to choose between work and childcare or concerned about exacerbating the learning loss that occurred in the spring, they left their district schools.
Unless they lived in a state with a voucher, tax-credit scholarship, or education scholarship account program, working- and middle-class families were left with few accessible non-public school options. By the fall of 2020, 100 non-public schools had already shuttered—80 percent of them Catholic—further disrupting the learning for # students across the country. On average, these schools were 45 percent minority and charged around $7,000 in tuition (not that all parents were paying the full amount). This tuition is considerably less than the average $12,500 per pupil U.S. school districts spend. For these mainly urban schools, CARES relief had come too late. The cost of safely reopening school—which in many cases required finding additional facilities to socially distance children—was just too steep.
Most of those schools were already financially fragile because they served mainly low-and lower-middle income students. These communities will continue to be disproportionately ravaged by the pandemic now and well after the virus is under control. While those with means dig into their savings accounts or 401Ks to pay for private school tuition, those without the means will be left with little hope of accessing a learning environment that is right for them. This failure to support all American students will be felt for years, if not decades, to come.
Much of this relief package is welcome, but the constraints the CRRSA places on families are evidence that Congress considers education in terms of school buildings and state and local bureaucracies. Times have changed. Education is about people: students and the teachers who guide them, in all types of schools, and parents and caregivers who want the best for their children. Surveys show that parents want flexibility and the opportunity to send their children to the school that fits their needs. This sentiment crosses political, racial, and socioeconomic lines. Unfortunately, most Americans can’t pay for this kind of flexibility—it costs too much
Especially during these times, lawmakers should consider the needs of all families. This means ensuring that future education relief is equitable and inclusive.
 Texas and Florida also set aside money to help families access supplemental services and scholarships. However, in Florida, revenue for the state-sponsored scholarship program held steady, and the funds were reallocated. In Texas, the Supplemental Special Education Services Program has not yet been implemented. Because money never reached parents, neither state is eligible to use its second round of GEERs funds for scholarships or direct payments.