The CARES Act that Congress passed in March dedicated $13.2 billion to helping schools deal with the pandemic.
The Orthodox Union’s Teach NJ initiative helped New Jersey yeshivot and Jewish day schools access about a million dollars of those funds.
“We’ve been working with the schools on the CARES package,” Katie Katz of Teaneck, the executive director of Teach NJ, said. “We’ve had conference calls for the schools. We’ve provided templates for them to reach out to their school districts. We helped the schools reach out to districts early on, in case any problems came up. We made sure they sent everything in.”
Under the law, the federal funds are distributed to local school districts, which then are responsible for passing on an appropriate share to the private schools in that district.
Precisely how those funds should be shared, however, has proven controversial. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos issued a guidance that increased the share of the money given to private schools, modifying the formula customarily the department of education customarily uses. This was in keeping with her strong support for non-public schooling, a posture that led her confirmation by the Senate in January 2017 to be strongly opposed by national teachers unions and strongly supported by the Orthodox Union. In response to this guidance, which dramatically expanded the scope of the “equitable funding” districts must provide to private schools, several states launched a lawsuit, which was joined, among others, by New York City; a separate suit was filed by the NAACP and some local school districts
In those states, funds have not been passed to private schools. New Jersey did not join the lawsuits, and the funding was available in accordance with the Department of Education guidelines.
The funding reimburses schools for expenses incurred in coping with covid. “They’re getting services, not funds, because in New Jersey it’s illegal for actual funds to be distributed to non-public schools,” Ms. Katz said.
The services for which the schools are reimbursed included cleaning, buying PPE, and otherwise making their facilities safe, Ms. Katz said. “The costs are very high for reopening,” she explained. “Many schools need construction to make this work. For these schools, the funds make an enormous difference.”
The actual amount of money is set in part based on the poverty of the public school district that distributes the funds. “If there’s a high percentage of Title I-qualified students in that district,” Ms. Katz said, referring to the Department of Education program targeting impoverished students, “schools are eligible to receive a greater percentage of funds than a school in a wealthier district.” Accordingly, the Jewish schools in Teaneck benefited more from the CARES funding than did their counterparts in Paramus. “The Teaneck schools received a lot of money,” Ms. Katz said.
Ms. Katz said the OU’s advocacy division encouraged the Department of Education to use the controversial formula “to give an equitable proportion” to non-public schools. “We were involved first at the policy level. Once it was decided, we were involved in a practical level in explaining the process to the schools and helping them receive the funds.
“Hopefully there will be another round of funding,” Ms. Katz said.
The Democratic-led House of Representatives passed a second stimulus package in May. The Republican-led Senate offered its own proposal last month, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) broke off negotiations between the two parties and adjourned the Senate.
Teach NJ has also been helping schools work out their reopening plans in conjunction with the state education and health officials in Trenton. “We’ve helped answer questions for them,” Ms. Katz said.
She said Teach NJ made sure that yeshivot and Jewish day schools were represented on the state committees that set the reopening policies for Governor Phil Murphy.
“We sat on two New Jersey reopening committees, to help give a voice for concerns of our schools,” Ms. Katz said.