The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference is asking the U.S. Department of Education to reverse state authorities’ decisions that the conference says gives insufficient coronavirus relief funds to Catholic and other private schools.
“We are appealing the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s decision because Congress was clear when it unanimously passed the CARES Act education funding,” Sean McAleer, education director for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, told CNA June 9. “The funding is emergency funding and the allocations were to be made to all teachers and students negatively affected by the Coronavirus pandemic. Since Governor Wolf closed all schools in Pennsylvania. public and private, all teachers and students were affected by Governor Wolf’s order.”
The funding came from the $523.8 million in K-12 aid Pennsylvania received through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, known as the CARES Act, passed by Congress in March. The non-public schools are not funded directly. Rather, the money goes to school districts or intermediate units, which then perform services for private schools.
McAleer said $66 million should go to Catholic schools and other private schools, not just $19 million.
However, the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s Division of Federal Programs said its funding distribution followed federal guidelines. The Catholic conference’s complaint, it said in a June 3 letter, was based on “nonregulatory guidance” issued by the U.S. Department of Education that said reservations for services for non-public schools should be based on total enrollment of these schools. State officials said the CARES Act and the U.S. Department of Education follow a longstanding interpretation which bases reservation numbers on the number of low-income children in each participating non-public school.
“There was plenty of money to go around and help every child,” McAleer told the Wilkes-Barre, Penn. newspaper The Citizen’s Voice. “Our kids’ lives matter, too.”
Funding, in the state’s interpretation, is proportional to Title I money. This means districts with larger populations of low-income students received more money.
While public schools do not have to demonstrate academic needs to receive funding, Catholic and other private schools must show that their low-income students need additional academic support.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the learning process of all students, regardless of what school they attend,” the Diocese of Scranton said, according to The Citizen’s Voice. “The Diocese of Scranton Catholic School System could potentially lose approximately $800,000 because of this decision, which would be a tremendous loss for the 4,500 students and families that rely on our schools for a quality, faith-filled education.”
Catholic schools need to acquire online learning platforms and technology and must implement more health and safety precautions if its physical buildings reopen for students. Some Catholic schools could close with drops in fundraising and in parents’ ability to pay tuition due to the pandemic.
Eric Failing, executive director of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, said last month that many private serve children in economically disadvantaged areas, and in many cases students depend on financial aid in order to attend.
Some private schools face closure or consolidation in response to rising costs. If non-public schools shut down or if parents are forced to pull their children out, he said, it will mean an even greater burden on the state’s public school system.
The American Federation of Teachers, a nationwide teachers’ union, on May 6 issued a statement urging school districts to ignore the U.S. Department of Education’s guidance, arguing that it is “inequitable, generates dollars for wealthy students in private schools”, and “denies public schools the recovery they desperately need.”