Though federal rule makers have clarified that coronavirus relief funds must help non-public schools, including Catholic schools, Catholic school advocates and other backers of private schools are working to rally support to ensure aid is distributed in a way that benefits all students.

Elias Moo, superintendent of the Archdiocese of Denver Catholic schools, said CARES Act funds could be critical to school operations. Schools need masks, funds for more cleaning services, and access to technology for school needs including remote learning.

“Our Catholic schools have been really hard-hit, as have families impacted by the pandemic,” Moo said. A drop in tuition payments has harmed school revenue, and schools linked to parishes have been hurt by declines in donations to the parish offertory.

Moo said that federal coronavirus school assistance should aid students in both private and public schools, and that some parish schools are depending on the help.

“We want to open our facilities in a safe and healthy manner but we also know that there are financial challenges. Without this funding, it will be a real challenge for some schools to be able to open effectively and safely,” he told CNA.

“Private schools have been impacted by COVID-19 at the same rate as public schools have, and in some cases more heavily,” Ross Izard, national director of public policy with the private school scholarship fundraiser and school choice advocate ACE Scholarships, told CNA July 10.

“These schools are hurting. They’re in need of help. They’re in need of aid,” said Izard. His Colorado-based ACE Scholarships works to provide partial tuition scholarships to K-12 private schools for low-income families. It also advocates for school choice. The organization is active in eight states and served 7,000 children in 800 schools in 2019.

The interim rule’s goal, according to Izard, is equity, the need to ensure “the same treatment for private school students as public school students.”

ACE Scholarships has asked its supporters, its families, partner schools and partner advocacy groups to circulate a letter and submit comment to the federal government in support of private school support.

“COVID-19 has devastated all sectors of education, and private schools have not been spared,” the letter says. “These schools, many of which are small and lack the resources of larger school districts, are struggling to safely and effectively serve their families as a result of the pandemic.”

“For many private schools, CARES Act equitable services will provide the emergency assistance needed to ensure that students can return this fall for a safe, successful school year. These schools should be entitled to a full, fair share of CARES aid in accordance with the law and previous U.S. Department of Education Guidance.”

The rule is open for a 30-day comment period, ending July 31. Izard said that people “have an opportunity to make their voices heard.”

“We are anticipating that the folks who are opposed to private schools generally, or to school choice, are going to participate at a very high level in that public comment campaign,” he said. “We want to make sure the U.S. Department of Education is hearing from the schools and the families in the private sector about how important that aid is to them.”

The Department of Education rule was previously non-binding guidance. Since funds are distributed through state and local education agencies, education officials in several states had ruled that private schools would receive fewer funds than many schools deemed sufficient.

In early June, before the new federal rule was announced, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference asked the U.S. Department of Education to reverse state decisions that gave insufficient coronavirus relief funds to Catholic and other private schools

Before the guidance became a mandatory rule, the Colorado Catholic Conference had circulated an action alert objecting to Colorado officials’ decisions. Education officials had disregarded federal guidance in a way that withheld relief funds for Catholic schools, the conference said.

“Without a fair share of relief funding for our Catholic schools, our already financially stretched Catholic schools will be faced with an additional hardship in trying to absorb the expenses needed to ensure schools can reopen safely and continue to provide a quality education to students in the midst of a pandemic,” said the action alert.

Brittany Vessely, executive director of the Colorado Catholic Conference, explained the motivation behind continued advocacy for relief aid to Catholic schools.

“We’re talking about being treated equitably and fairly based upon a pandemic that has impacted everybody,” she told CNA. “We want to make sure that relief funding gets to our schools and to our students.”

“All families have been impacted by the coronavirus, we are all in this together,” she said. Any state or local education agency that tries to block funding to non-public schools, she said, is being “discriminatory” against families that have chosen these schools as “the best education option for their child.”

Relief funds in the large east Denver suburb of Aurora, Colorado are distributed through the Aurora School District, one of the largest districts in the state. But the school district decided to postpone a decision until December.

In Aurora, the postponement meant a loss of “significant funding” Catholic schools were expecting, said Moo, who worried other districts in the state might delay the provision of resources.

“Now we’re scrambling to figure out how to pay for certain things that are needed from the first day of school, when students are back,” said Moo, adding that the Catholic archdiocesan schools are considering how to fund raise for some of the costs.

Corey Christiansen, public information officer for Aurora Public Schools, told CNA that the Colorado Department of Education has set December as the deadline for the allocation of these funds.

“Guidance on COVID-19 related federal funds has been limited in general and has changed several times since the original allocations were made,” he said. “We intend to apply and hope that additional clarification from Congress, the U.S. Department of Education or (Colorado Department of Education) helps clarify guidance prior to the December deadline.”

Jeremy Meyer, director of communications for the Colorado Department of Education, told CNA that in the department's view, the CARES Act requires that local education agencies “must provide equitable services to students and teachers in non-public schools, not direct funding.” Control of the federal funds must remain with the local agency. Calculations for these services have been “in flux” due to differences between the act’s language and the federal guidance.

“The reality of education is that it’s an ecosystem,” Izard told CNA, who added both public and private schools serve the same neighborhoods and the same people.

“What happens to one sector is going to impact the other sector,” he added. “If private schools don’t get what they need in the form of emergency aid, and they’re not able to effectively serve their students, those students have to go somewhere.”

“That can result in really significant costs on taxpayers and on the public system.”

Moo echoed Izard’s description of schools as an ecosystem.

“We really see ourselves as collaborators with public forms of education in the overall educational efforts in our state,” Moo told CNA. “In this educational educational ecosystem, here in Colorado in particular, we would say there is a symbiotic relationship between public and non-public education.”

“Our mutual strength ultimately ensures that children in Colorado are properly educated,” he said.

Under the new federal rule, two options are provided for local authorities. The first option requires that if a local education agency uses CARES Act funds for students in all its public schools, it must calculate funds for private schools based on all students enrolled in private schools in the district.

Under the second option, a local agency may choose to use funds only for students in both public and private schools with a high concentration of low income students, a program known as Title I.

According to Vessely, 17 states have decided to distribute funds proportionate to all private school students, while 21 states will follow the option to distribute funds proportionate to Title I beneficiaries in public and private schools.

Five states, California, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico, and Wisconsin, have filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, claiming that the federal rule unlawfully interprets the CARES Act in a way that diverts relief funds from public schools to private schools.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said July 7 the lawsuit is “about stopping the Trump administration’s latest effort to steal from working families to give it to the very privileged.”

Department of Education Press Secretary Angela Morabito said that “this pandemic affected all students, and the CARES Act requires that funding should be used to help all students.”

In Vessely’s view, the states’ lawsuit is unlikely to succeed.

“The majority of this country is not going the lawsuit route,” she said. There’s not a lot of precedent for them to win something like that.”

Vessely said that Catholic schools in Colorado serve a large number of low-income students.

Moo noted the high number of schools providing federal nutrition programs... and some schools serve a high percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch programs.

“This idea that our schools are for the wealthy or the affluent is not entirely rooted in the reality we live everyday.” he said, pointing to Catholic school success in helping students from disadvantaged backgrounds to close gaps in achievement with public school peers.

Moo said Catholic education is “an education rooted in cultivating the virtues.”

“That’s for everyone, not just the affluent,” he added.

The National Catholic Education Association has said Catholic schools should be included in the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act, known as the HEROES Act, which is now before Congress.

Ten percent of any new Covid-19 education funding should go to emergency grants to low- and middle-income private school families, the organization said. Both private and public schools have been hard hit by the epidemic and its economic effects, and any children who are forced to enroll in public school would further burden the public school system.

The NCEA is also advocating a “comprehensive” federal tax credit to ensure long-term funds for education.