Commentary

Battle over education funding

Congress and the President have undertaken several relief efforts to offset the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Among the most notable efforts have been stimulus checks to individuals and families, paycheck protection for businesses and nonprofits, and expansion of unemployment benefits.

Less well known is education relief funding contained in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. This relief is now becoming the stage for a major political feud over the flow of education funds to students in nonpublic schools, such as our Catholic schools.

The CARES Act provided for the Education Stabilization Fund, which includes three forms of funding relief for schools: 1. The Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund; 2. The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund; and 3. The Higher Education Emergency Relief (HEER) Fund. Combined, these three funds total $30.75 billion in relief for education, ranging from early childhood education all the way through postsecondary college education.

The relevant funds for Catholic elementary and secondary schools come from the GEER Fund and the ESSER Fund.

The GEER Fund amounts to $3 billion and is awarded to states based on a combination of total number of students in poverty and total number of students overall. Governor Ricketts is eligible to receive $16 million in GEER Funds from the federal government for Nebraska. These funds may be used for local public schools, institutions of higher learning, and other education-related entities. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has encouraged our nation’s governors to be creative in seeking solutions to address the impact coronavirus has had on our nation’s students and teachers.

The ESSER Fund contains $13 billion and is awarded to states based on their total number of students in poverty. Nebraska is eligible to receive $65 million. These funds pass from the federal government to the state’s department of education – which may retain 10% of the funds – and then to local public schools. The funds may be used for 12 different purposes, such as addressing the specific needs of homeless, low-income, minority and other disadvantaged students, purchasing technology, providing mental health services, and purchasing cleaning supplies.

Under the CARES Act, local public schools are required to consult with nonpublic schools to ensure that students in nonpublic schools get an “equitable share” of the relief aid. And, herein resides the issue.

From the moment the CARES Act was passed into law, there was an outstanding question: What exactly does it mean that students in nonpublic schools are entitled to an equitable share of the funds that their local public school receives?

Recent federal guidance issued by the U.S. Department of Education clearly answered this question: A nonpublic school is entitled to a share of the funds based on the total proportion of students it educates compared to the overall student population within the local public school district’s boundaries. To put this into English, if there are 100 students being educated within a local public school’s boundaries and 10 of those students are in nonpublic schools, then the students of the nonpublic school are legally entitled to 10% of the public school’s federal relief funds.

Simple math. And also, controversial math, for some.

In a downright embarrassing and disgraceful statement, the American Association of School Administrators denounced this federal guidance and encouraged defiance on the part of public schools. They claim that having funds shared on a per capita basis with students in nonpublic schools “funnels more money to private schools” and “generates dollars for wealthy students in private school.” In short, they profess the same old, tired argument that nonpublic schools do not educate children in need.

What this national association of public school administrators fails to recognize, which Congress and the U.S. Department of Education clearly recognized, was that the coronavirus does not discriminate against students whether they are in a public or nonpublic school. This virus has negatively impacted all of our students and, because of this, federal aid is intended for all students.

As this issue moves forward, the Nebraska Catholic Conference – alongside of local and national partners – will work on behalf of all the students in our Catholic and other nonpublic schools to ensure they are equitably and fairly treated, and to make sure that our voice is heard in the public policy process. As always, prayers are appreciated!

Tom Venzor is executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, with headquarters in Lincoln. Contact him at tvenzor@necatholic.org.