The Colorado Association of Private Schools has appealed to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to intervene in how Colorado Department of Education officials are interpreting allocation of federal COVID-19 relief funding for the state’s 500 religious and independent schools.

“The Colorado Department of Education decided not to follow the guidance prepared by the U.S. Department of Education, and the private schools are struggling just as much as public schools,” said Tom Cathey, who lobbies for the Colorado Association of Private Schools as well as the Association of Christian Schools International.

“They’ve had to do online education and provide software for instruction and equipment for students to continue to educate the children, just like public schools.”

The way the state Education Department is set to divvy up the nearly $121 million Colorado received from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund would shortchange Colorado’s 60,000 private school students and potentially lead some schools to close, Cathey said.

“If we have the funding to clean the schools and provide online services, it would help schools to continue to exist,” he said.

Under the federal funding mechanism that’s part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, public school districts must portion out some of their allocation in the form of equitable services to students and teachers in nonpublic schools within their geographic boundaries.

The problem is this: While the money is intended to benefit all students by financially offsetting impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on schools, the distribution formula for public schools is based on how many students qualify for Title 1 benefits, a program that  provides additional educational assistance to students living in poverty.

The CARES Act is not a Title 1 program, but merely the model being used for the education relief pot.

Private schools would lose out on what they believe is their due (equal share per student) because many do not pursue Title 1 funding, and those that do have small numbers due to geographic qualifications and other restrictions.

Thus, receiving an allocation for a few students that is intended to reach all students is unfair, Cathey said.

“Then they’re saying take the funding for 10 students and clean the desks of 100 students with it,” he said. “It’s not helping private schools provide services to every child.”

DeVos has said she wants the funding, which would be distributed to private schools in the form of “equitable services” under Title 1 regulations, to be based on overall student count. Public schools still would get their cut based on their Title 1 student count.

Such a disbursement would be contrary to how Title 1 funds should be doled out, said Colorado Department of Education spokesman Jeremy Meyer.

“It raises a discrepancy between statutory language and nonbinding guidance,” according to a note CDE sent to schools.

“The equitable services to nonpublic schools needs to be provided in the same manner as Title 1,” Meyer said.

However, the guidance is confusing, and private schools are waiting on further direction from DeVos to argue their case with state officials, Cathey said.

DeVos wrote in a May 22 letter to the Council of Chief State School Officers in Washington, D.C., which also questioned disbursement to private schools, that the CARES Act is a pandemic-related congressional appropriation to “benefit all American students, teachers and families.”

Nothing suggests “Congress intended to discriminate between children based on public or nonpublic school attendance,” DeVos wrote.

The U.S. Department of Education will “issue a rule” on the topic in coming weeks and seek public comments, she said in the letter.

Colorado is among a handful of states to interpret the pandemic funding for education in this way.

Local school-choice advocate Steve Schuck said it shouldn't matter whether children attend a private or public school when it comes to COVID-19 relief funding.

"Kids are kids," he said. "There should be no hierarchy — the money should follow the student regardless of where that student goes to school."

Overall, Meyer said, “We’re not really clear,” about how the money should be divided.

Given the uncertainty, the Colorado Department of Education is asking public school districts to set aside the larger amount of allocation to private schools, in the event that the U.S. Department of Education’s clarification on the issue means private schools in Colorado must receive funding based on total student count and not Title 1 student count.

Amounts public school districts are estimated to receive vary from $5.9 million for Colorado Springs School District 11 to $16,500 for Edison School District 54-JT.

State education officials have no estimate on the amount private schools would receive under either the lower or higher scenario, Meyer said, because officials currently do not have access to student counts at private schools, which would determine their funding.

“The information will come through districts as they go through the required consultation process with the nonpublic schools in their area,” he said.

The application period for Colorado public school districts to apply for the new pandemic-related funding opened June 1.

The Colorado Association of Private Schools, a statewide organization headquartered in Colorado Springs, hopes to hear from DeVos about its complaint soon, Cathey said.

Lobbyists for private schools also are calling on state lawmakers for assistance.

Smaller funding amount could result in layoffs, officials say

At which level federal COVID-19 funding is disbursed could mean the difference between layoffs or no layoffs for some of the state’s 55 Catholic schools that enroll nearly 10,000 students, said Holly Goodwin, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Colorado Springs. The diocese serves about 1,500 students in seven schools.

“It’s not a good situation,” she said.

Since churches have been closed for several months because of pandemic restrictions, tithing has decreased, Goodwin said. That will lessen churches’ ability to subsidize need-based tuition assistance, which as many as half of Catholic school students in the region receive.

Goodwin is projecting a 40% to 50% decrease in funding from local parishes for student scholarships for the school year that starts in August.

“It’s unfortunate, and I know public schools are facing cuts, too,” she said. “While they’re looking at 20% in state funding cuts, we’re looking at 40% cuts with no state funding.”

Such a drop would affect employees, she said, which is why the larger amount of COVID-19 funding is critical.

The contribution would help mitigate expenses for new health and safety protocols as well as remote learning that all public and private school students statewide were required to do for the last two months of the school year and must prepare for again, she said.

“The money was intended to help all kids that have been affected by the pandemic, and they all have,” Goodwin said. “The way it stands now, it’s not going to help all of our kids equally.”

To those who say religious schools should not receive any federal funding under the doctrine of separation of church and state, Goodwin replies that children need to be educated in the way their parents think is best for them.

“All our parents are paying taxes for public schools,” she said. “Any federal assistance we might receive, they’re paying for.

“While state schools have focuses on STEM, IB, performing arts, the one area they don’t accommodate is parents who want faith as the basis of education.”

Goodwin worries that enrollment will decrease at local Catholic schools if tuition assistance isn’t available for needy students.

Statewide, Cathey said, private schools collectively could see a 10% drop in enrollment come fall, which would mean 6,000 students leaving private education for public education.

Such an influx of students would tax the public-school system, he said, and require additional state spending on schools.

This article has been updated to clarify that state law does not come into consideration with Title 1 funding.

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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