On December 3rd, in a live CNN interview with Jake Tapper, president-elect Joe Biden declared his plans to re-open elementary schools nation-wide. After speaking with the leaders of the teacher unions, he determined that sanitization, ventilation, and more teachers (for smaller pods of students) would cost $100 billion nationwide, for just one year. Mr. Biden explained that states are running out of money, so the onus for providing funds to properly sanitize schools from Covid-19 rests on the federal government.
Putting aside the valid concerns of the violation of federalism, the overestimation of costs, and increased federal spending and taxes, it is important to realize how such funding could adversely affect charter and private schools nationwide.
On June 30th, 2020, in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the United States Supreme Court ruled that while states are not required to subsidize private education, they cannot exclude religious schools from receiving state funds due to their religious nature. The decision greatly broadened the aid that non-profit private schools, both religious and non-religious, could receive in states across the nation.
However, if the $100 billion federal funding push materializes following the teacher union pressure, as Joe Biden admitted, union leaders will do everything in their power to ensure none of those funds go to charter and private schools. A form of cronyism, allowing funds for some schools and not others, would enable public schools to flourish while charter and non-profit private schools flounder. Furthermore, state departments may attempt to bar certain charter and private schools from receiving the same funds, despite the precedent set in Espinoza v. Montana.
In Las Vegas, Nevada, that is exactly what happened.
When the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed, a proportion of the funds were set aside for school relief. In Las Vegas, Nevada, the funds came out to about $117 million. As the Nevada Department of Education notes, only 10% of the funds would be designated to:
Nevada Local Education Agencies (LEAs); charter schools; K-12 licensed non-profit private schools (through LEAs); Nevada public Institutions of Higher Education; non-profit community-based organizations focused on K-12 education in Nevada; and other Nevada state agencies/state-run entities that provide services to K-12 students
Charter schools and non-profit private schools could apply to the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Grant from July 7th to August 19th, 2020.
During the application period, qualification requirements were very unclear. The Nevada Department of Education wanted private and charter schools to adhere to certain protocols but were still undecided on what the protocols would be. Each ESSER grant applicant was assigned to a liaison who was supposed to assist in the process but who was also nearly impossible to get in contact with. Furthermore, even if a charter or non-profit school were to receive money, the school could not reopen until the yet undecided protocols and procedures were satisfied.
The entire application process was so convoluted and covered in red tape that many Las Vegas charter and private schools could not get through the process or did not bother to apply at all. By the way, public schools, who received 90% of the state education funds from the CARES Act, did not have to walk through any special application process to receive funds.
At one larger non-profit private school, the school administrator I spoke with estimated that they had spent almost $1 million out of pocket to keep their school safe in the pandemic.
Luckily, wealthy parents and board members donated extra funds to the school to account for these new costs. But charter and private schools that serve lower-income students who most benefit from school-choice options will not fare so well.
Another, slightly smaller non-profit private school said that they had spent only $200K out of pocket to keep their school safe. The administrator explained that he went to a Las Vegas casino owner and asked how the casino disinfects their machines during flu and cold season. The casino owner provided information on how to buy the most effective and cheapest sanitization supplies directly from the manufacturer. The school has had zero breakouts and health inspectors repeatedly say how impressed they are with their Covid-19 process.
Unlike public schools, who cannot go out of business, charter and private schools can permanently close. Therefore, it is in the best interests of charter and private schools to keep students safe and keep costs down. By distributing federal funds in an equitable matter to all schools without so much red tape, Joe Biden and the union leaders can learn much from charter and non-profit private schools on what procedures and products are the most effective and affordable.
McKenzie Richards is a development associate at the Pacific Research Institute.