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Charter schools receive more per student in federal COVID aid

student classroom
Posted at 3:54 PM, Feb 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-23 08:20:16-05

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — When it comes to how federal education relief money was distributed during the pandemic, an analysis by NewsChannel 5 Investigates found charter schools were able to get a larger share than traditional public schools.

The federal CARES Act was passed at the beginning of the pandemic and designated $16 billion in emergency education relief for schools across the country.

Tennessee's portion of that money was made available to schools through various grant programs run by the Tennessee Department of Education.

And in Nashville, additional CARES Act money for the purchase of computers was given to schools by the Metro Council, while some private and charter schools tapped into CARES Act money through the Payroll Protection Program.

But when NewsChannel 5 Investigates analyzed data from local, state and federal agencies, we found Nashville charter schools received more per student in COVID aid than traditional Metro public schools -- in some cases, a lot more.

Charter schools are publicly funded but privately run, which means that charter schools were eligible to apply for loans from the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).

That PPP money was designed to keep small businesses and non-profits from laying people off during the shutdown.

Businesses that received PPP loans don't have to repay the loans if they spent it on payroll, and other eligible expenses, and can show they did not lay workers off during the pandemic.

Several Nashville charter schools received large PPP loans that Metro public schools were not eligible to receive.

The president and CEO of the Tennessee Charter School Center, Dr. Maya Bugg, said Davidson County charter schools were told to prepare for big budget cuts, as much as 10 percent, when the global pandemic hit Nashville last spring.

"They were just as scared as anyone else," Bugg said. "They needed to keep things moving for their students."

"When you have a crisis on your hand, and you don't know if funding is coming or not, you have to try and get what you can in order to take care of students and families," Bugg said.

She said many charter schools applied for the PPP money last spring, concerned about a worst-case scenario.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "You applied for the money concerned cuts might be coming."

Bugg responded, "That's right."

NewsChannel 5 Investigates followed, "Did those cuts happen?"

"There were some cuts," Bugg responded. "But here's the thing, even without those cuts, charter schools are funded at a lesser rate than traditional schools."

The major cuts never happened, and charter schools were able to receive nearly all of the funding they had been expecting when they set their annual budgets, including money to fund teacher salaries.

Still, many charters were able to receive the PPP money, which was also intended to help pay those same salaries.

Records show that KIPP Nashville, which runs six charter schools in Nashville, received $3,539,400 from the Paycheck Protection Program, while Republic Schools Nashville received $2,121,240.

And Valor Collegiate Academies received $1,883,300 for their three Nashville schools.

Former Metro School Board member Amy Frogge was disturbed by the numbers because she said charter school funding was not drastically cut.

"It's patently unfair that charter schools are able to access this much additional funding that was actually meant for small businesses that were struggling during the pandemic," Frogge said.

She said the charters should pay back the PPP loans.

"The charters are fully funded, and they are double dipping by accessing the funds meant for small businesses," Frogge said.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Maya Bugg, "Do charters plan to pay the money back?"

Bugg responded, "I think it depends on the charter school. They all used it according to the rules of the PPP so everyone is going to follow the rules of the PPP program."

In addition to PPP, federal CARES ACT money was also made available to Nashville schools through seven different grant programs including the Elementary and Secondary School Education Relief and the Governor's Emergency Education Relief Fund.

Using current student enrollment numbers, we found Metro received $2,290 per student in CARES Act funds - while charter schools like Nashville Classical ($3,414), Republic Schools Nashville ($3371) and Stem Preparatory Academy ($3310) all received more than $1,000 per student above what traditional MNPS schools received.

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Other charter schools, like Valor Collegiate Academies ($2810) and KIPP Nashville ($2690), received hundreds more per student in CARES Act funds than MNPS schools.

We also analyzed the numbers using the enrollment figures from last school year, SY 19/20, which is when the pandemic started and reflected the enrollment when much of the aid was applied for or distributed.

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"The difference in funding is pretty shocking." said Amy Frogge.

While the Paycheck Protection Program money KIPP Nashville received was meant to help save current jobs, we found that Gov. Bill Lee awarded additional CARES Act money to fill 14 new positions at KIPP, mostly part time, during the pandemic.

Frogge said the fact Metro public schools received so much less per pupil during the pandemic will only hurt public schools as they try to reopen.

"Charter schools often like to say they are not businesses. They are public schools like any other school, but in a circumstance like this, they are more than willing to tap into private dollars or dollars that are meant for private businesses," Frogge said.

Dr. Bugg pushed back, "I don't think we should be pitting small businesses against charter schools."

"Should charter schools get the money or small businesses get the money? The answer is both," Bugg said.

Dr. Bugg insisted charter schools are underfunded because they don't receive regular funding for capital expenses - like paying rent or debt service on the buildings they use.

But our analysis was strictly focused on coronavirus aid.