After pressure from the National Opportunity Project and independent, private, and parochial school leaders and advocates in the state, Illinois will allocate remaining $45.7 million in federal aid to nonpublic schools.

What happened to EANS funds in Illinois?

In summer 2022, the National Opportunity Project (NOP) began researching the Emergency Assistance to Nonpublic Schools (EANS) program—a $5.5 billion federal Covid relief program for independent, private, and religious schools. At the time, NOP suspected the money might not be reaching schools. A “reversion clause” allowed governors to use any leftover funds for virtually any education purpose. But no one was keeping real-time track of whether states had fully allocated their EANS dollars, or how governors were redirecting any reverted funds.

Illinois received $168 million from EANS for its more than 850 nonpublic schools: $84.4 million under the Trump Administration (EANS I), and $83.2 million under the Biden Administration (EANS II). For EANS I, states were told to prioritize schools more students from low-income families and in communities harder hit by Covid. EANS II was limited to schools with a 40% or higher low-income enrollment. States could propose an alternative threshold. Illinois asked for a 10% standard which the U.S. Department of Education denied before accepting the state’s revised request for 20%.

For nine months, NOP has been in contact with Illinois state education officials and submitted public records requests to learn more about what happened with Illinois EANS funds. In June 2022, NOP discovered that only 68% of funds reached schools through the original distribution methods.

For EANS I, roughly a third of 883 eligible schools applied for and received aid.

Why was participation so low? Results of a survey that the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) sent in May 2021 to schools that didn’t apply for EANS I suggested many didn’t apply due to the Payroll Protection Plan (PPP) loan exclusion. However, according to federal PPP loan data, that issue only applied to around 100 Illinois schools. Some schools also said they weren’t aware they were eligible, didn’t have time or staff to apply, or were concerned that participation would require changes to how their school operated or what they were able to teach. ISBE did briefly re-open the EANS I application window for eight days, with few additional applicants.

With EANS II, the 20% threshold meant even fewer schools eligible (279). Around one-quarter participated (75); all but eight had received aid under EANS II.

Illinois initially left with $54 million in unspent aid

Illinois didn’t have the same level of success that other populous states including New York, Florida, and California did in getting the funds to needy schools with very little or no money returning to their governors. Over $54 million total was leftover from EANS I and II, and reverted to Governor Pritzker’s discretion— meaning he was free to grant funds to any educational project, provided the purpose was connected to needs created by the Covid emergency.

Initially, the state planned to use $22.7 million of reverted funds for a statewide tutoring program open to any nonpublic school. Five proposals were submitted – two for $20 million or more, but ISBE awarded the contract to Catapult Learning for $7.85 million. The program aimed to service “at least 3,750 students” in 20 to 30 schools. As of mid-December 2022, approximately 1,000 students in 40 schools have participated. ISBE extended the contract timeline at its last board meeting on March 15, 2023.

Public pressure led to allocation of remaining nonpublic school funding

What about the remaining $46 million? The relentless advocacy from NOP and stakeholders including religious school leaders of the state’s Catholic dioceses and Agudath Israel of Illinois led to the creation of the EANS Reallocation Grant Program in December 2022.

This program mimicked the federal version, but without any eligibility restrictions, however the list of allowable expenses remained limited and emphasized mitigating Covid the disease. No reimbursements for past expenses are allowed.

After receiving notice and additional information on the program, schools were given a month to indicate their interest. As of a March 16, 2023, update from ISBE to NOP, a total of 560 nonpublic schools are participating in the EANS Reallocation program, and nearly all the remaining EANS money ($45.7 million) has been allocated to those schools. Any money leftover will again be subject to the governor’s discretion.

While Illinois was not successful in allocating all EANS funds during the initial application periods, it should serve as a model for states where federal aid has yet to reach nonpublic schools. Nearly $46 million will now be available to independent, private, and religious schools in Illinois because NOP and other organizations continued to ask questions, seek funding updates, and offer feedback on how to best allocate aid to benefit those who paid the steepest price for our pandemic policies—children.