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Private schools suffering too

In late March, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act for short. In part, it calls for $13.2 billion to be provided for K-12 education across the country, with an estimated $523.8 million for Pennsylvania, according to the U.S. Department of Education. That money has been earmarked for all schools in our state. Yet, there are efforts underway by the Wolf administration to try to exclude private schools from the benefits of the CARES Act.

We are urging the U.S. Department of Education not to give in to these demands to squeeze out private school communities, many of which are serving vulnerable children in economically distressed communities throughout the state. These schools, in particular, will likely feel the devastating effects of the COVID-19 shutdown harder than those in wealthier areas.

On May 7, Pennsylvania Education Secretary Pedro Rivera sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Education for clarification on the CARES Act funding. He contends that the current formula would lead to huge increases in funding for “more advantaged students” at the expense of “most disadvantaged students.” He urged the department to clarify the guidance by letting districts set aside a much smaller share of the money. That followed a declaration from the American Federation of Teachers and the School Administrators Association that districts should ignore guidance from the U.S. Department of Education.

Secretary Rivera and these national groups seem intent on assessing the need for students across the state and country on a superficial standard that would be biased and questionable at best, even during normal times. There seems to be a misconception and stereotype that all private schools are rolling in money. Yes, some of them are doing OK. So, in fact, are many public school districts. A random tour of suburban schools in Pennsylvania would reveal modern facilities with up-to-date buildings and adequate land. Meanwhile, there are continued stories of private schools having to close or consolidate because, while they are saving students from failed public school systems in financially distressed communities, they also must address rising costs.

There are many Catholic schools that have been managing to survive financially. But then there are schools like St. Patrick’s Catholic School in Harrisburg. The kids have recess in a 30-square-foot parking lot with a chain-link fence preventing the balls used at recess from going into the alley and hitting the garage next door.

Anna Marie Berry, the school’s finance director, says that most of the students at St. Pat’s receive some form of financial aid. She says the school would not be able to continue without it. Those are students who would have to go back to a failed public school district that, even after going through state receivership, is still in trouble.

It’s a similar situation for Blessed Sacrament School in Erie. “We’re just a population of working-class people, and we’ve got a ton of scholarships,” said Principal Jane Wagner, who said they had to scramble to get iPads for kids to use during the current shutdown. Once again, Erie is dealing with a failing public school system. Private schools in the area have provided a wonderful opportunity for students not only to learn but to thrive.

These are challenges being felt by many private schools, and we are just coming off the biggest economic recovery the United States has ever seen. Who knows what kind of economic climate will be present when the smoke from the shutdown clears? The latest U.S. unemployment report shows 20-million jobs were lost in April. This will almost certainly trickle down to private schools, where families will be forced to withdraw their kids and put them into the public school system. That will, in turn, drive up private school tuition and force many other families to follow suit. What happens to the public school system when all those children are forced into their classrooms?

We sincerely thank federal officials for respecting the hardships that have been faced and will be faced by administrators, staff, parents and students of private schools. We ask the Wolf administration to do the same.

Governors across the nation were given $3 billion in a discretionary fund to use as they would see fit. Gov. Wolf would get $104.4 million, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The governor indicated in his press conference this week that he is willing to dole out the money to those whom he favors. He can share that money with schools he feels need it the most.

If this truly is an act of “equity,” let’s show that it is by not excluding any students or families based on education politics. Our children are our future, and they deserve better.

Eric Failing is the executive director of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference.

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