DC public charter schools can apply for federal funds meant to bail out small businesses

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DC Charter Schools get most of their funding from the government, a revenue stream that continues to flow as coronavirus immobilizes the district’s economy. But some schools are now debating whether they should apply for federal bailout funds meant to help small businesses and nonprofits hit by the crisis.

It’s a request the chair of the board of education wonders if schools should make when so many businesses and organizations have lost almost all of their income and resources are limited.

“We’re in an ethical dilemma,” said DC Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), who chairs the education committee. “The challenge is to dig deep within yourself and see where you see yourself in the pecking order of our community’s needs.”

But charter leaders say they incurred unexpected and high costs when schools closed. If they are entitled to the money and need it, they said, they should use it.

The $2 trillion federal relief package finalized last week, officially known as the CARES Act, includes nearly $350 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program, a loan program for small businesses. The program incentivizes small businesses with fewer than 500 employees to retain workers by covering about two months of paychecks for employees earning less than $100,000 a year. Businesses can have their loans forgiven if they avoid layoffs or pay cuts.

How to get a small business loan under the $349 billion relief bill.

A spokesperson for the Federal Small Business Administration said the agency will release more information about the Paycheck Protection Program, and it remains unclear who will qualify for the loan.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a national charter advocacy organization, advises charter schools to apply for the program. And while it’s unclear how many of the city’s 62 charter operators plan to apply, Scott Pearson, executive director of the district’s charter regulatory and licensing board, said he hopes all eligible schools will submit an application.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty about the city’s budget,” Pearson said. “In the absence of something like this program, we should expect layoffs in public charter schools, and the whole point of this program is to prevent those layoffs.”

Charter schools, which educate 47 percent of the city’s roughly 100,000 public school students, are publicly funded and privately operated. The city spends a base of about $11,000 to educate every public school student in the two areas.

Although some charter schools receive private donations, most of their funding comes from the government. But Pearson and charter school leaders said many campuses spent extra money buying laptops and providing groceries and school supplies to students during the extended closures. Others expect to see private giving dry up and fear they will need more resources in the coming months to ensure their students don’t fall behind in their studies.

DC Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) proposed in February to increase education spending by 4% over the next fiscal year, and Grosso said he would fight to keep that bump intact. He said businesses that rely on private spending — including restaurants and retailers — likely need more than charter schools and should be prioritized in allocating those funds to small businesses.

Under federal law, the district is required to implement a uniform formula to fund charter schools and traditional schools equally based on enrollment. The city provides buildings to the traditional public school system and allocates additional funds to each charter student so that their schools can acquire and maintain their facilities.

DC’s charters say the city must give them empty school buildings. The city says no.

The traditional school system would not qualify for federal small business loans. But charter advocates have long argued that their sector is unequally funded. The traditional public school system, advocates say, can use city services, including legal advice, which charter schools must pay for themselves.

Tracy Wright, chief executive of Paul Public Charter School, said she plans to apply for federal funding through the relief program. She said her school had sent 450 computers to students to use during remote learning and would need extra money to repair and replace broken computers.

Other schools said they were reviewing their finances and considering whether to apply. Raymond Weeden, principal of Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter School, said his school had purchased 150 computers for students to use during school closures and was canceling its annual fundraising gala in April.

“In terms of costs that no one expected, we definitely have them,” Weeden said. “We are analyzing and reviewing that and trying to see if it makes sense for us to apply.”

The Bowser administration said it had no position on whether charter schools should apply for the loan program, but said it supports “schools using every tool legally available” to help them.

“At this unprecedented time,” Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn wrote in a statement, “we are focused on supporting all of our public school communities as we tackle new challenges together.”

Aaron Gregg contributed to this report.

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