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D.C.’s public charter schools may ask for federal funds designed to bail out small businesses

Scott Pearson, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, and other board members at a meeting in January 2019. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

D.C. charter schools get most of their funding from the government, a revenue stream that continues to flow as the coronavirus grinds the District’s economy to a halt. But some of the schools are now weighing whether they should apply for federal bailout money aimed at helping small businesses and nonprofit organizations hurt by the crisis.

It’s a request that the education council chairman wonders whether the schools should be making when so many companies and organizations have lost nearly all of their revenue and there are finite resources to go around.

“We are in an ethical dilemma,” said D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), who chairs the Education Committee. “The challenge is digging deep inside of yourself and seeing where you see yourself in the pecking order of needs in our community.”

But charter leaders say they have incurred unexpected and hefty costs during the school closures. If they qualify for 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 small-business loan program. The program incentivizes small businesses with fewer than 500 employees to keep their workers by covering about two months of paychecks for employees who make less than $100,000 annually. The businesses can have their loans forgiven if they avoid layoffs or pay cuts.

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

A spokesman for the federal Small Business Administration said the agency will release more guidance about the Paycheck Protection Program, and it is still uncertain who will qualify for the loan.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a national charter advocacy organization, is advising charter schools to apply to the program. And although it is unclear how many of the city’s 62 charter operators plan to apply, Scott Pearson, executive director of the District’s charter regulatory and authorizing board, said he hopes all qualifying schools submit an application.

“There is a lot of uncertainty about the city budget,” Pearson said. “Absent of something like this program, we should expect layoffs from public charter schools, and the whole point of this program is to prevent these layoffs.”

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

Though some charter schools receive private donations, the bulk of their funding comes from the government. But Pearson and charter school leaders said that many campuses have spent extra money to buy laptops and provide groceries and school supplies to students during the extended closures. Others expect to see private donations dry up, and they fear they will require more resources in coming months to ensure their students do not fall behind in their studies.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) proposed in February to increase education spending by 4 percent next fiscal year, and Grosso said he will fight to keep that bump intact. He said businesses that rely on private spending — including restaurants and retailers — probably have greater need than charter schools and should be prioritized in divvying up these funds for small businesses.

Under federal law, the District is required to set up a uniform formula to fund charter and traditional schools equally on the basis of enrollment. The city provides buildings to the traditional public school system and allocates additional money to each charter student so their schools can acquire and maintain their facilities.

D.C. charters say the city needs to give them empty school buildings. The city says no.

The traditional school system would not qualify for the 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 counsel, that charter schools must pay for on their own.

Tracy Wright, chief executive at Paul Public Charter School, said she plans to apply for federal funding through the relief package. She said that her school dispatched 450 computers to students to use during remote learning and that she will need extra cash to repair and replace broken computers.

Other schools said they are reviewing their finances and mulling whether they should apply. Raymond Weeden, principal at Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter School, said his school purchased 150 computers for students to use during the school closures and is canceling its annual fundraising gala in April.

“In terms of having costs that no one was expecting to have, we are definitely having those,” Weeden said. “We are analyzing and looking into it and trying to see if it make senses for us to apply.”

The Bowser administration said it does not have a stance on whether charter schools should apply to the loan program but said it supports “schools using all legally available tools” to help them.

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

Aaron Gregg contributed to this report.

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