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This op-ed by Patrick Hughes was published April 1, 2023 on

The lingering impact of COVID school closures for 55 million American children is clear: They’re scholastically compromised, prone to higher levels of anxiety and their futures are uncertain.

Students today are 15 to 24 weeks behind where they should be for their age groups, according to new data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The consulting firm McKinsey & Co. suggests it could take decades for children to recover from COVID absences — if they ever do.

Perhaps, most worrisome of all, there is clear evidence that low-income students were the hardest hit from pandemic-era learning losses.

Back during COVID’s early days, the federal government approved $200 billion in school-age assistance across three bills in 2020 and 2021.

But a deep dive into the data around those bills reveals that huge chunks of the funds have failed to reach the kids most in need. 

This is the finding of a new report by our organization, the National Opportunity Project.

After months of public records requests, back-and-forth conversations with state education officials and pouring over government documents, we identified at least $736 million in federal funding that has yet to reach K-12 schools and students through the Emergency Assistance for Nonpublic Schools (EANS) program. EANS was established in late 2020 to dole out $5.5 billion of that $200 billion to independent, private and nonpublic schools. 

It’s a myth that nonpublic schools only serve affluent families and were minimally affected by COVID. In reality, nearly every private and parochial school is home to low-income students and families. And just like their public counterparts, nonpublic schools weathered government-imposed shutdowns, learning and job losses, and severe illnesses. 

But owing to political horse-trading – and confusing EANS legalese – federal emergency aid slated to benefit low-income students at non-public schools now risks turning into slush funds to cover the pet projects of wily state governors. 

Take former Oregon governor, Democratic Kate Brown.

She spent $1.6 million of EANS money on Moonshot for Equity, a multiyear initiative aimed at “eliminating equity barriers” at state colleges.

South Carolina’s Republican governor Henry McMaster gave $25 million to community college scholarships for workforce preparedness programs.

Both efforts may sound noble, but the money was intended for kids who can’t read or perform math at grade level, not grown adults who already have a leg up in life. 

How is it possible that funds meant to educate low-income students have been redirected to governors’ checking accounts? We found that due to a little-discussed loophole authorized by Congress when it established EANS, any money left over from the program can be used by governors for a myriad of other (loosely defined) “educational” purposes unrelated to nonpublic schools.

This provision stands in stark contrast to the relief funds designated for public schools, which must be returned to federal agencies if left unspent. 

As a result of all these inconsistent policies, governors and state education agencies have been disincentivized from allocating much of their EANS funds to the nonpublic schools that deserve them. Instead, millions have found their way into local state coffers. 

Much of this misdirected money got there because EANS failed to provide clear and effective implementation guidelines. Each state, for instance, was not only tasked with how to notify their schools about EANS funds, but with finding a way for those schools to actually receive them.

States had to also calculate the financial impact of COVID on their schools, determine low-income student enrollment in order to qualify for EANS funds and manage the funding applications themselves. And they had to do all of this during some of COVID’s darkest days. The results have been unsurprisingly confounding: Schools in some states received $5 million or more, while schools in other states received $0. 

A total of 27 states have federal dollars that should, but have yet to, reach schools and students: Ohio has $51 million, Virginia has $68 million and Washington has $41 million in remaining federal funds still available for nonpublic schools. In the Tri-State, New York has allocated all of its $500 million in EANS funds while some $20 million is left over in New Jersey and could revert to Gov. Phil Murphy’s control, if it hasn’t already.

But pressure is mounting. Our work has already moved states to get this funding to kids hit by COVID school closures. Illinois is now making $46 million that was set to return to its governor’s office available to 560 nonpublic schools. In Tennessee, we uncovered an error in administrative program costs which led to $3.3 million returning to schools and students, rather than the state.

There are still hundreds of millions of dollars out there for students – and it needs to be recovered now. Converting classroom aid into state-level pet projects should be unacceptable to parents and policymakers alike. Not a single dollar for K-12 education can be given to other causes until every child eligible for this money is caught up in the classroom.

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