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Charter schools’ public funding is still flowing, but some say they still need federal aid

Faculty and supporters of National Collegiate Preparatory Public Charter School gather at the D.C. Public Charter School Board office in 2019. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

D.C. charter schools received federal aid intended to keep nonprofits and small businesses afloat during the coronavirus pandemic, drawing criticism from public school advocates and others who say the money should be reserved for businesses hit harder by the crisis’s economic toll.

It is unclear exactly how many applied for the money. Officials across the District’s expansive charter sector — 63 operators that educate almost half of the city’s 100,000 public school students — have largely remained quiet about which schools have received help from the federal Paycheck Protection Program.

The D.C. Public Charter School Board, the city board that regulates the schools, said it doesn’t know, and the D.C. Council’s Education Committee chair said the same.

FOCUS, a leading D.C. charter advocacy organization, has been the public contact point for schools interested in applying. But its director, Anne Herr, said she also does not know. Oversight of the relief money “belongs to the federal government,” she said.

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Contacted by The Washington Post, most charter operators declined to say. But some acknowledged applying — and defended the decision.

“These kids are wearing the brunt of everything that goes bad in the city,” said Shawn Hardnett, founder and executive director of Statesmen College Preparatory Academy for Boys in Southeast Washington, which received a $300,000 loan. “Everything we can do to protect the most vulnerable children in the city we are doing.”

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Wealthy private schools in the region have gotten pushback for taking the money. Top universities have, too. Some businesses, including Shake Shack and Ruth’s Chris Steak House, ultimately decided to return the money after public scrutiny.

Charter schools now face similar blowback. That’s because their main revenue source — per-pupil government funding — is so far unaffected by the pandemic. Meanwhile, other companies and organizations across the district have lost nearly all of their revenue, said D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), who chairs the Education Committee and has questioned whether charter schools should apply.

“I think it’s really an abuse of funds,” said Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “They are not losing their funding stream.”

Schools will need to disclose to the charter board whether they received federal aid as part of the annual fiscal audit of each school, which is publicly released around December.

Charter schools are privately operated nonprofits, but they are publicly funded, receiving the same money per student as the traditional public school system. They receive additional funds to pay for facilities. But they have long argued that they face a financial disadvantage because they cannot lean on services provided by local government agencies, including maintenance and legal services, as the traditional public school system can.

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D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announced in early March that she would increase education spending per student by 4 percent. But the city is predicting that it will need to cut $600 million in spending next fiscal year, and education leaders say they are unsure what their funding will be.

Schools across the country, including charter campuses in the District, are slated to receive billions of dollars from Congress’s $2 trillion coronavirus relief package. Schools that qualify for Title I funding — federal money distributed to schools that serve high populations of students from low-income families — will receive between 70 and 80 percent in additional funds beyond what they typically are allocated for each Title I-eligible student the schools serve. Schools typically receive more than $1,300 for each eligible student. Most charter campuses in the city are Title I schools.

But it still may not be enough, said Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, which studies education finances. She said charter schools applying for federal aid underscores the uncertainties that schools face in the upcoming budget cycles.

In addition to not knowing how much money they will receive next year, school leaders said they are unsure how many extra expenses they will incur for cleaning and protective equipment.

“Charters applied because they are qualified and they are perpetually scared about getting their next dollar,” Roza said. 

In emails, leaders at D.C. Bilingual and Paul Public Charter School said they applied but did not receive the loans. Others applied and are deciding whether they should keep the money.

The city’s two largest charter networks — Friendship and KIPP DC — have more than 500 employees and do not qualify for the loans.

Several other charter schools — including Mundo Verde, Eagle Academy, AppleTree Early Learning Center, Washington Global, Washington Latin, Two Rivers and Creative Minds International — either did not reply to requests for comment or declined to say whether they received a loan.

In an interview, Hardnett defended his school’s decision to go after the money. Statesmen Academy opened in 2017 and is entering its third year in operation, adding a grade each year. It is not yet at full capacity, and Hardnett said he has higher overhead costs per student until the school reaches full capacity.

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Hardnett had been relying on private funding until his school hits full capacity in two years. Most of his grants are set to lapse at the end of the academic year, and he had been searching for new private funding. But he says that won’t be possible now, and the federal funds will allow him to keep his staff through the summer and provide his students with extra academic services he says they will require once distance learning concludes.

“Every dollar we find we should get into this building,” Hardnett said.

Digital Pioneers Academy also received federal aid, said founder Mashea Ashton. The school is concluding its second year, she said, and has high overhead costs, which private donations have enabled the school to afford. She said she spent money during the health emergency on technology and distance-learning training for her teachers.

“If we don’t have these resources, then I would have to let go my P.E. and art teachers, and those who are not full time with us,” she said. “And those positions are essential to delivering our mission.” 

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