Final CARES Act Disribution Rule Still Favors Private Schools Over Public Schools

Betsy DeVos just released binding final guidance for states to distribute $13.2 billion from the CARES Act to public school districts and private schools. States and public school districts have been pushing back against DeVos’s preliminary non-binding guidance, which favors funding for private and religious schools.  Now in her final guidance DeVos has struck a compromise of sorts, but many think her new plan is unworkable.

In the language of the CARES Act, Congress distributed $13.2 billion in relief funds to school districts  to reflect the distribution plan in the Title I formula, which sends federal money to school districts according to the number and concentration of impoverished students enrolled in the district’s public schools. Title I also requires school districts to provide Title I services for students who live below 185 percent of the federal poverty level and are enrolled in private schools located within district boundaries. In April, in her preliminary (non-binding) guidance for distribution of CARES Act dollars, however, DeVos prescribed that CARES Act dollars would be distributed to private and religious schools based on their total enrollment, not just for the number of impoverished students they enroll.

Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa explains how Betsy DeVos’s new final rule revises her previous non-binding guidance for the distribution of CARES Act dollars to public and private schools:

  • “A district can decide to distribute the CARES money only to schools that received Title I for the 2019-20 school year—essentially, those schools with a minimum share of students from low-income backgrounds.
  • “If districts choose to distribute aid only to Title I schools, they can use two options to calculate how much money they set aside for equitable services (for private schools): they can use the same amount for equitable services they set aside for the 2019-20 school year, or they can conduct a count of low-income students in local private schools to determine the proportional share.
  • “If a district distributes aid only to Title I schools, it can’t use the CARES money to backfill cuts at the state and local level. That could create a very big incentive for districts not to spend CARES money only on Title I schools, given the huge budget cuts many districts are facing.
  • “But if a district distributes CARES aid to schools that didn’t receive Title I in 2019-20, then it must calculate the amount it must set aside for equitable services (for private schools) using a count of all local students enrolled in private schools in the district.”

Ujifusa explains why what appears to be DeVos’s compromise may actually complicate decisions for school districts already struggling financially and at the same time trying to figure out how to reopen school this fall: “The… final rule could in theory make life easier for districts where all the schools received Title I in 2019-20, since they could treat equitable services (for private schools) like they always have.  But districts with some schools that didn’t get Title I in 2019-20 would have to weigh whether they want to help all their schools, and then set aside more money for private school students as a consequence, or only use CARES aid to benefit their schools with relatively large shares of poor students and reserve less money for students in private schools.” Under the new compromise, if schools target CARES Act dollars only to their Title I students, these dollars cannot be used to fill in for what are in many cases enormous overall recessionary cuts in state aid.

The Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler explains why what seems to be a compromise really isn’t designed to meet the needs of most school districts: “The agency offered what it billed as a compromise.  It said that school districts may distribute the money to private schools based on the number of poor students they serve.  But if they do so, districts must then restrict their own spending of the federal money to the benefit of their own poor students… Opponents said this was not a real alternative.  Although the law (CARES Act) uses poverty to allocate funding, it allows districts to use the money to aid all schools and students. It’s designed to offset expenses such as cleaning of schools and training teachers in remote education. Opponents said restricting districts’ spending authority to only high poverty schools would hamstring them. A GOP congressional aide agreed and said Congress never intended to give private schools so much funding and DeVos is jeopardizing other efforts to provide them with aid.”

Meckler quotes Dan Domenech, executive director of the School Superintendents Association: “The policy priorities of the secretary represent an opportunistic money grab, using the pandemic environment to advance the privatization agenda.”

In a follow-up piece, Ujifusa reviews the controversy about DeVos’s original plan to force school districts to award CARES Act dollars to private and religious schools based on those schools’ total enrollment: “Advocates have… accused DeVos of exploiting the pandemic and CARES aid to shore up private schools fearful that they could be forced to close permanently, at the expense of traditional public schools. The fight over roughly $13 billion in federal Covid-19 aid revives long-running and bitter disputes over DeVos’s stance on traditional public schools, and whether she is intent on redirecting resources and other benefits to private schools and other educational models. At least two states have said recently they plan to ignore the late April guidance, and at least one state—Tennessee—has said it will follow the directive.  However, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn, the chairman of the Senate education committee, said last week that he differs from DeVos about equitable services (for private schools) under the CARES Act. Congress has the power to overturn DeVos’ guidance,although Alexander did not say he supported a move to do either of those things.  Federal lawmakers can also nullify regulations from agencies like the Education Department.”

Back in May, after the Council for Chief State School Officers complained that DeVos’s preliminary guidance for distribution of CARES Act dollars favored private schools at the expense of public schools, DeVos accused the state school superintendents and other public school educators of selfishness and unwillingness to share: “We trust that LEAs (‘Local education agencies’ is the federal term for local school districts.) understand their general obligations to provide equitable services to students and teachers in nonpublic schools when they accept (federal) money….  Although I understand their reflex to share as little as possible with students and teachers outside of their control, I would remind states and LEAs that their non-public school peers have also been overwhelmed by COVID-19.”

Let’s stop here and consider the idea of selfishness among local school districts. Even when, as advocates, we seek more equitable funding for the poorest school districts, nobody I know wants a funding system that would take away from the services provided in the wealthiest school districts.  When I think about the richest school districts I know personally, I don’t want them to give up their challenging curricula; their art and school music programs and high school orchestras; their advanced science and math courses; extra electives in literature, history and government; high school newspapers; well supplied school libraries; up to date technology; smaller classes; school nurses in every building; and manageable case loads for counselors, school psychologists and social workers.  What we all want is more of these services in the poorest schools to bring them to a level of what most parents would define as adequate services. Everybody I know who seeks better public school funding equity wants to level up, not to level down.

Public education dollars buy services for 50 million children and adolescents across the United States. State superintendents and local school district officials are not selfishly trying to hoard CARES Act dollars.  These educators want to protect federal CARES Act dollars urgently needed in the nation’s 98,000 public schools for the purpose of serving students during the pandemic and making up for deep recessionary cuts in state funding. They are trying to protect federal emergency assistance desperately needed in our public institutions.

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