Home Coronavirus Yoga Mats, Crayons, and Microwave Containers, Oh My! What the Virginia Department...

Yoga Mats, Crayons, and Microwave Containers, Oh My! What the Virginia Department of Education is Buying for Private Schools with Federal COVID Money

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by Cindy

When the pandemic hit, all schools were hit hard. They faced new unexpected and unplanned for costs of redesigning learning to a digital model. They faced decreases in enrollment–in the case of public school, leading to decreases in per-pupil funding; in the case of private schools, decreases in tuition. All schools were struggling. Private schools were able to apply for PPP loans, but public were not. State governments like Virginia scrambled to ensure public schools had adequate funding to provide services they are required by law to continue to provide.

The American Rescue Plan contained $2.75 billion in aid given directly to state governors to be distributed to private schools serving low-income students (separate funds were directly spent on public K-12 systems through the US Department of Education). The money could not be handed out as direct grants to the schools, but was intended to be distributed through procurements of COVID-related items, administered by the state’s Department of Education. The funds were meant to go towards pandemic-related health and safety costs to help schools get and stay open; and towards lost learning and the social and emotional toll of COVID. Virginia in particular received $46.3 million in Emergency Assistance for Non-Public Schools (EANS).

You may or may not appreciate your federal tax dollars being spent to prop up the private school system, especially as the public system has fought tooth and nail for funding, and has constantly come under attack from Republicans. (Who by the way, opposed the American Rescue Plan, including this emergency funding for private schools.) But this is nothing new. Since the “No Child Left Behind” law, school divisions have been required to provide eligible low-income students attending private elementary and secondary schools with Title I services or other benefits that are equitable to those provided to eligible public school students. In other words, the public school system has to supplement the services a disadvantaged child receives when their parents chooses to send them to a private school.

To apply for EANS funds, a school had to document that a certain percent of its students were from low-income families (25% in the case of Virginia), that they hadn’t received a second PPP loan (perfectly fine if they received one in the first round, before December 2020), and had to state what “authorized emergency services” they were requesting funding for. Then, after applying, the private school would either receive the funds or be denied, with explanation.

This EANS funding was permitted to be used for: supplies to disinfect and sanitize; PPE; improved ventilation and air purification systems; faculty and staff training in sanitizing, the use of PPE, and minimizing the spread of infectious disease; physical barriers to create social distancing; other CDC recommended material to facilitate schools re-opening or staying open; educational and support services to address learning loss. The latter services had to be secular and non-ideological. Procurement was conducted by the Virginia Department of Education, through its normal procurement rules.

So, in the last six months, what has Governor Youngkin’s Department of Education been requisitioning for the private schools? Well, there *are* purchases of paper towels, face masks, gloves, air filtration systems, and tutoring.

And then, there are some…other things. Like the 14,700 microwave containers purchased for Christ the King Early Childhood Education Center (who also had received a $280,000 PPP loan). The 25,000 sheets of paper and $3,300 worth of ink toner cartridges. Sacred Heart Catholic School (who previously also received a $233,000 PPP loan) requested an order for 800,000 sheets of paper for over $6,800! (With about 175 students at the school, that’s over 4,500 sheets per pupil!) Sure, schools all need printer paper and ink—but Congress did not approve federal emergency pandemic funding, paid for by public tax revenues, to pay for a private organization’s paper and ink.

The Virginia Department of Education requisitioned over 700 new library books for the Phillips Program (which looks like a fantastic school), including 12 copies of the Handmaid’s Tale, and 12 copies of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Elk Hill Schools requested 275 new library books in April, 2022; and then an additional 140 on May 6 and 150 more on May 9.

Don’t get me wrong—I love books and firmly believe children should have access to great classic books like these and others (although I could have sworn this administration wasn’t a fan of those particular titles). I just also know that federal COVID emergency funds were not earmarked for this spending. Nor for the art smocks, Inktense paints, yoga mats, and licorice jump ropes the Department of Education purchased on behalf of Portsmouth Regional Catholic School (another previous recipient of a $221,000 PPP loan). I suspect public schools, where teachers notoriously have to buy supplies out of their own half-empty underpaid pockets, and where schools run out of toilet paper before the school year ends, would love to be able to buy a libraries’ worth of new books, and art supplies, and…there’s more.

Portsmouth Regional Catholic School also requisitioned 1,600 boxes of crayons on April 14, 2022, and then 1,600 more boxes of crayons on April 25, 2022. That’s a lot of crayons. Even more when you consider that Portsmouth Regional Catholic School has only around 150 total students, in grades K-8.

And Lego sets, and math manipulatives, counting bears, snap cubes, giant money, jumbo dice sets. Dry erase boards, magnetic letters, sets of blocks. And new microscopes, slides, lens papers, science lab goggles. All great things for the schools to have. But not on the federal taxpayer’s dollar under the guise of emergency pandemic response.

While Youngkin’s Department of Education was handing out thousands of dollars’ worth of printing paper, library books, crayons, microwave containers, and yoga mats to a select few of Virginia’s private schools, public schools like those in Henrico have had to hold school supply drives just to beg for the same books, crayons, papers, and markers from the public. It’s a good thing the federal government stipulated that the funds had to be allocated through the state departments of education, so that there would be some … oversight.

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