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Federal court ruling on distribution of CARES Act funding hurts Catholic schools in diocese, superintendent says

St. Mary Magdalen principal Patrick Tiernan stands in the school's resource center, where the desks have been moved apart from each other. (Dialog photo/Mike Lang)

A recent court ruling will have a significant negative impact on Catholic schools in the Diocese of Wilmington, according to the superintendent of schools. The ruling, by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, affects the formula that will be used to distribute money allocated under the CARES Act.

According to a note from Susan Bunting, secretary of education in Delaware, the district court granted a summary judgment motion that challenged the U.S. Department of Education’s interpretation of how the money should be distributed. The court found that the federal agency lacked the authority to require equal CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act funding to private schools regardless of the schools’ low-income population.

Louis De Angelo
Louis De Angelo

“The state argued that that money should be divided, as all monies are divided, that come from the federal government, based on poverty equity, not just street equity,” De Angelo explained. “So, what happens is, every year we collect the data of how many of our families are eligible for free and reduced lunches. That number’s going to be a whole lot less than our total student number.”

According to the court ruling, that funding should be calculated based on established eligibility criteria under Title I of the National Elementary and Secondary Education Act. That means less funding for the Catholic schools.

“Based on the Title I formula that is used, we will get significantly less money to use for PPE (personal protective equipment) supplies, for technology, for other reasons or other things that can be acquired through this CARES money,” De Angelo said.

That is fundamentally unfair, he argued.

“The initial intent of the CARES Act was to help schools through the pandemic. It should have nothing to do with poverty. It really should be equal because the pandemic doesn’t discriminate on poverty or not poverty. The pandemic treats everyone the same, so the money should have been allotted to treat everyone the same.”

For one diocesan school, he said, under the original formula, it would have received about $40,000. After the court ruling, that amount is now $7,000. Some schools are in a better position to absorb those costs than others.

Currently, the CARES Act, which was passed in March, is the only current funding coming through the government. The diocese was able to secure money under the Paycheck Protection Program to help meet payroll and pay other bills. Parishes and families also have been very generous to help the schools acquire the necessary equipment and make improvements to safely reopen the schools, De Angelo said.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Sept. 29 the department will not appeal this ruling or two others that went the same way. The difference with the ruling in the District of Columbia court, according to Education Week, is that this one applies nationwide and not to a specific state.