Electronic devices for students

Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8’s Mary Brennan, student achievement coordinator, laid out electronic devices in preparation for families to check them out to do remote learning in the fourth quarter of the 2019-2020 school year. Photo courtesy of Christy McGee

Public school districts now have two options for providing federal coronavirus relief funding to private schools that operate within their geographic boundaries, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently announced.

The ruling comes after some private school advocates in Colorado and other areas complained about their state’s interpretation of how the education allotment of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES Act, should be divided.

The Congressional act requires “equitable services” be allocated for private schools as well as public schools to cover COVID-19-related costs, such as cleaning buildings and supplying technology and other materials for students to participate in remote learning.

Pandemic exposed cracks in Colorado school funding

New guidelines from the Department of Education require school districts to be consistent in allocating the funding for public and private school students in their area, Colorado Department of Education spokesman Jeremy Meyer said.

DeVos’ initial direction was confusing, state officials and private school representatives had said, disagreeing over whether distribution should be based on a school's enrollment of Title 1 students, those living below federal poverty lines, or total pupil enrollment. Many private schools do not receive Title 1 funding because of restrictions and qualifications, and those that do often have small numbers that private school leaders say are not reflective of the volume of students living in poverty.

The Colorado Catholic Conference lobbying group earlier this month called on supporters to contact legislators to fight what they deemed as unfair CARES Act funding in Colorado. They argued that using the Title 1 model for funding that was designed to benefit all students, as the Colrado Department of Education told districts, “effectively excludes most Catholic schools from receiving relief funds, even though that was not the intent of CARES.”

Now, districts intending to use the funds in all of its schools need to base “equitable services” funding for private schools on the total enrollment of students in private schools, Meyer said. Districts planning to use the funds only for students in Title I schools can calculate the funds for equitable services using the total of low-income students at participating private schools, he said.

The Colorado Department of Education will “adjust its guidance to align with the new rule,” Meyer said. Colorado is receiving nearly $121 million in CARES Act funding.

Private schools challenge Colorado's disbursement of pandemic relief funds in federal complaint

The U.S. Department of Education’s decision is “a bit of a mixed result,” said Thomas Cathey, chief of staff of the Association of Christian Schools International, which is headquartered in Colorado Springs.

Ideally, the original guidance, which said “all” students were to benefit, would have ensured the greatest equity if it had been applied based on total enrollment, Cathey said.

“Now, if districts choose to only use funds for Title 1 schools, there will be children that will not be served,” he continued. “I believe the intent of the law was to provide services for every child in Colorado.”

The state has about 500 private schools, including religious schools and independent day and boarding schools, Cathey said. 

Several sources of coronavirus relief funding are available to public schools, but only the federal ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) Fund includes sharing a cut with private schools, said Glenn Gustafson, chief financial officer and deputy superintendent for Colorado Springs School District 11.

Districts have not yet received the ESSER funding.

“It allows expenses into the 2019-2020 fiscal year, which ends Tuesday,” Gustafson said. “We haven’t been appropriated the money, which is creating a big headache.”

The funding can be used through Dec. 31, 2022.

Some private schools in D-11, which covers the central area of Colorado Springs, have said they want their fair share of the funding, which Gustafson said D-11 will base on Title 1 enrollment, not total pupil enrollment. Other private schools have said the funding is not worth the compliance regulations that need to be followed, he said.

How much private schools would receive of the $6 million in ESSER funds D-11 is slated to be allocated has not yet been determined, he said.

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