Money for Nothing?

On May 12, 2021, private schools throughout California received word, via an email sent from the California Department of Education, that their applications for federal Emergency Assistance to Non-Public Schools (EANS) funding had been approved. The notifications also revealed the amount of funding each school was eligible to receive in the form of services and/or assistance. The amounts were of unprecedented magnitude: a basic per-pupil allocation of approximately $1,100, with each student hailing from a low-income household generating an additional 20 percent.  Exciting as this news was, chances are better than not that much of the money will never find its way to its intended beneficiaries: children whose academic progress and sense of well-being have been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

EANS was enacted as part of the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021, a massive federal stimulus bill that designated a total of $2.75 billion to help nonprofit private schools and the students they serve recover from the deprivations wrought by the pandemic. California’s share of the total federal EANS appropriation amounted to $187.5 million, with up to $937,379 available to be reserved for administration of the program. Application for assistance under EANS was limited to nonprofit private schools that had neither participated in the first round of Paycheck Protection Program funding, nor planned to apply for the second round. Every school deemed ineligible to apply for EANS benefits served to increase the eventual per-pupil allocation available to approved applicants.

EANS differs from most federal education programs offering “equitable services” for private school students and educators. For one, EANS allows private school to receive cash reimbursements for allowable expenses incurred to safeguard the health of students and staff, on, or after March 13, 2020. Importantly, receipt of reimbursement does not result in “recipient of federal financial assistance” status, meaning that schools receiving reimbursements under EANS will not become subject to the provisions of federal laws such as Title IX, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Another key difference is that the services and assistance to be provided with EANS funds must be administered by state education agencies (SEAs). In fact, the non-regulatory guidance accompanying the program makes it clear that SEAs may not hand off responsibility for oversight of the program to local education agencies (i.e., local public school districts). The underlying legislation thus saddles SEAs with the substantial burden of designing and implementing an applications procedure, administering reimbursements, and either providing direct services to hundreds of private schools, or contracting with third-parties to do so.

An additional troublesome wrinkle takes the form of a requirement that funds must be obligated (i.e., contractually committed, or otherwise committed in writing) within six-months of the date on which they were received by a state. This provision is particularly frustrating given that EANS funds may be expended through September 30, 2023. Despite the generous time horizon for actually spending EANS funds, any dollars yet to be obligated within the six-month deadline will revert to the state. This feature of the law introduces a potentially perverse incentive tempting SEAs – already faced with a complex and cumbersome set of administrative challenges – to engage in foot dragging.

The May 12 notification emails sent by the California Department of Education also contained the following item of information:

“The CDE will be sharing the next steps in the EANS process by providing all applicants the opportunity to attend a scheduled webinar on or before July 1, 2021, that will include detailed instructions on how to submit and receive reimbursements…and other relevant information related to eligible EANS funding.”

It’s unclear exactly when the state received its EANS allocation, though it’s likely to have been sometime in late February, or early March, meaning that the six-month window for obligating funds will close sometime in late August or early September, 2021. Assuming that the CDE is able to offer its informational webinar as “early” as June 20, and that schools will be granted a minimum of two weeks’ time to submit whatever information is to accompany requests for services, it is unclear how the Department hopes to meet the six-month deadline. The time-crunch becomes even more acute should applicant schools wish to receive services from third-party providers, and near-impossible should competitive bidding procedures be required.

Where does all of this leave private schools whose administrators have been notified that hundreds of thousands of federal dollars are available to provide emergency assistance? Sadly, I suspect that an initial sense of elation will give way to confusion and, ultimately, frustration. In its implementation of the program, the CDE can be expected to assign priority to those elements of EANS that impose the least administrative burden.  Schools completing the necessary paperwork will, indeed, receive reimbursement for covered expenses. But expenditures related to the purchase of PPE, cleaning supplies, physical barriers to facilitate social distancing in classrooms, COVID-19 testing, and similar, allowable expenses won’t come close to exhausting most schools’ available funding.

EANS funds should be available to provide services designed to mitigate learning loss, repair socio-emotional deficits, and support students’ mental health. Ample money is available to underwrite various permutations of pull-out, after-school, extended school year, and summer programming tailored to meet a wide range of academic and socio-emotional needs. But EANS doesn’t permit private schools to receive reimbursement for such programs and services. Instead, these critical services must either be delivered directly by the state, or by a third-party contracted by the state. And with the clock ticking down on the six-month deadline, each passing day reduces the odds that the kids in greatest need will actually receive the assistance EANS was intended to provide.

Note: The commentary and views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessary represent those of the California Association of Private School Organizations, or its members.

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