Qualifying private schools in Hawaii are eligible to tap into $10.3 million in federal Covid-19 relief funds to help offset the cost of cleaning supplies or personal protective equipment for staff.

But Gov. David Ige’s office has increased the percentage of low-income students required for schools to participate in the Emergency Assistance to Non-Public Schools Program.

Leaders of private and parochial schools were disappointed with the decision, saying it may preclude their institutions from funding that would help keep students and staff safe amid the ongoing pandemic.

Whatever gets unused from the so-called EANS funding gets sent back to the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund for discretionary educational spending, including for public schools.

“There is no question that Hawaii’s public schools can use all of the financial help they can get, but it is also the case that the vast majority of Hawaii’s private and parochial schools are very small, underfunded institutions that provide a lot of financial aid to low and middle income students,” said Phil Bossert, executive director of the Hawaii Association of Independent Schools.

U.S. Department of Education officials recommended that states make EANS funds eligible to schools at which 40% of students have low-income status but allowed each state to adjust that percentage as needed.

Governor David Ige walks into his ceremonial office before the budget press conference with his team.
The governor’s office proposed an elevated percentage of low-income students served per private school to be eligible for funds under the federal Emergency Assistance to Non-Public Schools Program. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

While some states like California, Kansas and Kentucky decided to lower the threshold to 20% of the student body, Ige’s office proposed a higher threshold of 47.2%, using as justification the average percentage of low-income families in public and non-public schools in Hawaii.

Public schools use federal guidelines to determine low-income status so children from families with incomes at or below 130% of the poverty level are eligible for free meals. That includes roughly 47% of the total public school student body.

In an emailed statement, Ige’s office said it “relied on data and expertise from the state Department of Education” before submitting its application proposing the adjustment.

To be eligible, a private school in Hawaii would need to have almost half its student body qualify as low-income to receive this new round of federal funding. Some private school administrators say the upward adjustment will be detrimental to member schools and questioned why state officials didn’t consult with independent school leaders to determine a better strategy.

“We have a significant portion of families who are low-income in some of our schools, but not half,” said Llewellyn Young, superintendent of Hawaii Catholic Schools, which has 27 schools with roughly 7,000 students.

Young said he was “surprised and disappointed” by the action taken by the governor’s office, pointing out that while his schools don’t rely on this federal aid, any little bit is helpful to offset the costs of newer supplies like plexiglass dividers required to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, or maintenance costs.

It’s unclear how many private school kids in Hawaii come from a low-income household, though schools may ask families for income and assets to determine financial aid packages. However, private schools are eligible for supplemental federal aid for qualifying students, which is administered by the Hawaii DOE.

To determine low income eligibility, the DOE uses the residential zip code of a private school student to determine if it falls within a region that is a designated public school low-income area, according to HAIS’ Bossert. If enough students in any given school fit this criteria, the entire school is considered low-income.

While Bossert said he does not know how many of the state’s 112 independent schools qualify as low-income, each year “about 25 or 30 small, mostly church-related schools end up qualifying for Title funds.”

The DOE did not respond to a request for comment.

Private schools were among the first in the state to reopen for in-person learning with beefed-up safety measures in the 2020-21 school year. Hawaii’s 257 public schools, on the other hand, stuck to mostly a distance or blended learning environment until August, when all opened for in-person instruction.

With more streamlined operations and larger budgets, private schools were able to bring back students to classrooms sooner without having to worry about union politics or other top-down bureaucracy issues endemic to the public school system.

But private schools weren’t immune to the economic impacts of the pandemic as they also faced increased costs to keep facilities safe and the possibility of lower revenue due to financially strapped households. Covid also accelerated the closure of Hawaii’s oldest Catholic school in Kaneohe, which saw its prekindergarten levels drop below the point of sustainability.

“We have a significant portion of families who are low-income in some of our schools, but not half.” — Llewellyn Young, superintendent of Hawaii Catholic Schools

As of October, the 104 private schools that belong to HAIS enrolled 33,540 students, or 16% of all kids enrolled in both public and private schools in the state. Federal data as of 2016 shows that roughly half as many private school students in America are considered low-income than their public school peers. Median private school tuition in Hawaii varies by geographic region, from roughly $15,000 a year at the high end in the Honolulu district to $6,500 annually at the lower end on Kauai.

A total of $2.75 billion was set aside under the American Rescue Plan Act for the EANS program nationwide. Hawaii schools must apply by Jan. 7 and funds must be obligated by April 25.

In the first round of such funding under the 2020 Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, Hawaii received $9.8 million in EANS money.

Thirty-six private schools, ranging from large institutions like Punahou to smaller ones like Windward Nazarene, drew from the first round.

Private educational institutions also were eligible for the Paycheck Protection Program relief fund, and have to indicate whether they were a recipient of the loan on their EANS application.

In Hawaii, powerhouse private institutions were big beneficiaries of the federal PPP loan, including Mid-Pacific Institute, which received $5 million; Hawaii Preparatory Academy, which got $2.73 million; and Hawaii Baptist Academy, which got $2.25 million, a national database shows.

But PPP loans were designed to help private institutions avoid staff layoffs. EANS funds have more prescribed uses like cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment, but will also accommodate additional costs for helping students deal with learning setbacks during Covid.

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