Funding proposals reviewed by the Detroit Free Press include a range of items, from disinfecting supplies to mental health supports. The proposals, included in early ESSER data from the MDE, are preliminary.
While some schools asked for a laundry list of spending items, many received a fraction of what they requested.
Powers Catholic School in Flint, for example, shows $1.3 million in requested ESSER funds from Flint Community Schools Powers will likely receive a very small fraction of that request, said Kevin Walters, with the office of school support services at the MDE. Under the process of allocating the funds, the Flint school district helps Powers narrow down the proposed spending, which is then approved by MDE.
Other private schools provided more vague explanations on how they used the money.
Holly Fournier, a spokesperson with the Archdiocese of Detroit, an organization that oversees dozens of Catholic schools across metro Detroit, wrote in an email that she could not provide exact spending figures.
However, she said much of the public money went to supporting staff.
“For the majority of our schools, EANS and PPP dollars were used to support additional personnel needs during the height of the pandemic, including school counselors and interventionalists, like reading and math coaches, who work one-on-one and in small groups with students needing extra assistance in various subjects,” she wrote.
“Some schools also used these funds to enhance the online learning experience: subscribing to educational apps, covering wifi for low-income families without internet access, and equipping teachers and students with the tools necessary to teach and learn remotely.”
Adams, with University of Detroit High, said his school spent much of the ESSER money on technology to assist in remote learning, including equipping classrooms with video cameras, speakers and microphone so students could log into class from home.
Public funds for private schools?
The debate over whether private schools should benefit over taxpayer money is long-running, and began long before the pandemic. Some states have school voucher programs, which allow funding to go to private schools per student, in scholarship form. A ballot initiative in Michigan would create such a program, but the proposal will likely not make the ballot this year. Michigan’s Constitution forbids voucher programs, and an effort on the ballot in 2000 to change that was rejected by voters.
Brian Broderick, executive director of the Michigan Association of Non-public Schools, said the need for extra funding from federal COVID relief funds was clear.
“COVID impacted you no matter where you went to school,” he said. “You can’t make a distinction between going to a public school or private school.”
Others have criticized schools for taking multiple streams of funding.
Heard, with 482Forward, once tried to get her son into a private school, she said. Her son was denied, with little explanation. She would have needed significant financial assistance to send him to the school, which usually costs thousands in tuition every year.
She said the experience taught her that private schools can turn away children for any reason — which is why she opposes any public funds crossing over to private organizations, including PPP loans and federal COVID relief.
“It all boils down to the same thing: Public Money for private schools, and I still say no,” Heard said.
How much relief funding should go to private schools was also hotly contested early on in the pandemic.
Michigan, led by Attorney General Dana Nessel, sued former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in 2020 over an initiative DeVos spearheaded that would have led to private schools receiving $16 million in federal COVID relief.
Nessel’s suit disputed a U.S. Department of Education rule that would have led to more funds going to private schools, with fewer restrictions over which schools were eligible, namely private schools that serve fewer low-income students.
Nessel accused DeVos of trying to “siphon away funds from public schools to private schools.”
A federal judge permanently blocked DeVos from implementing the rule, leading to private schools receiving a smaller chunk of change.
Others have criticized private schools for taking PPP loans.
COVID Stimulus Watch, a progressive government watchdog based in Washington, D.C., found in 2020 that 5,400 private schools nationally received $4.5 billion in PPP loans, at about $855,000 per school. In Michigan, 97 private schools received PPP loans, according to the report. U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, a Democrat from Virginia who chairs the Education and Labor Committee, said the report revealed a “disturbing imbalance” between the relief available to public schools and private schools.
“Congress must focus on putting resources where they are most needed,” Scott said in a news release from 2020.
MDE officials have pledged to hold schools, private and public, accountable for spending.
“We will know where the funds are spent,” Walters said.
But there are some quirks in accountability measures for the funding.
For example, local school districts, rather than the private schools, will be on the hook to pay back funding if ESSER money is misspent, even though private schools ultimately benefit from the funds.
“It’s appropriate for the monitoring to focus on the local district,” DiSessa wrote, because the funding is spent by the public school for the benefit of the private school.
The Michigan Department of Education is monitoring how private schools benefit from EANS funding through its application process. Schools must get approval for their spending proposals from MDE and then present an invoice for reimbursement for the spending.