Education Dept. Rule Limits How Schools Can Spend Vital Aid Money

Jun 25, 2020
Originally published on June 26, 2020 6:11 am

In a new rule announced Thursday, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos signaled she is standing firm on her intention to reroute millions of dollars in coronavirus aid money to K-12 private school students. The CARES Act rescue package included more than $13 billion to help public schools cover pandemic-related costs.

The move comes nearly two months after the Education Department issued controversial guidance, suggesting that private schools should benefit from a representative share of the emergency aid. Lawmakers from both parties countered that the aid was intended to be distributed based on how many vulnerable, low-income students a district serves.

While that guidance was nonbinding, Thursday's rule is enforceable by law.

"The CARES Act is a special, pandemic-related appropriation to benefit all American students, teachers, and families impacted by coronavirus," DeVos said in a statement. "There is nothing in the law Congress passed that would allow districts to discriminate against children and teachers based on private school attendance and employment."

The new rule gives school districts two choices about how to spend their aid money:

Option 1: If a district wants to spend the money on interventions that will reach all students — not just low-income students — it must also pay for "equitable services," such as tutoring or transportation, for all private school students in that district.

This is a hotly disputed interpretation of the CARES Act that would force public schools to put hundreds of millions of dollars toward private school services. According to an analysis by the Learning Policy Institute, this reading of the law would increase private schools' share of CARES Act dollars from $127 million to $1.5 billion.

Option 2: A district can instead choose to focus its share of CARES Act money on low-income students. In this case, it would only need to provide equitable services for private schools based on how many low-income students those schools serve.

While the second option appears to favor low-income students, public school advocates say this alternative is onerous and unworkable for many districts. Some under-resourced schools would be left out, they say, because under the new rule, the money can only go to schools that received federal Title I dollars in the 2019-20 school year. But not all schools that are eligible for Title I aid ultimately receive it, due to funding limitations.

Advocates also say that the rule's additional restrictions would severely limit how the money could be spent. For example, under the second option, the money can only go toward helping low-income students. That means it can't be used to, say, clean and disinfect all of a district's schools because not only low-income students would benefit, says Sheara Krvaric, a partner with Federal Education Group, a law and consulting firm that helps states and school districts understand federal education policy.

"You couldn't use the money to pay existing staff," Krvaric says. "You couldn't do anything district-wide. ... So it would be a real constraint."

Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of the School Superintendents Association (AASA) said in a statement, "AASA is deeply disappointed in U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos' doubling down on her flawed guidance." He called the new rule "an opportunistic money grab, using the pandemic environment to advance the privatization agenda."

In announcing the rule, the Education Department lamented that "Most private schools serving low- and middle-income communities are under great financial strain due to COVID-19" and that "more than 100 private schools have already announced they will not be able to reopen following the pandemic, and hundreds more are facing a similar fate."

Rep. Bobby Scott, the Democratic chairman of the House education committee, warned that this new rule "will create more confusion at a time when schools are already facing unprecedented challenges."

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Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is standing firm. She took a lot of heat in May after issuing guidance to school districts, saying they should spend hundreds of billions of dollars from the CARES Act to help private school students. Today she issued a new rule, effective immediately, making it harder for districts to refuse. NPR education correspondent Cory Turner has been covering this fight and joins us now.

Hi, Cory.


MCCAMMON: So let's start by digging a little deeper into this fight between DeVos and public school advocates. What's really going on here?

TURNER: Yeah. It starts with the basic fact that school budgets across the country right now are getting crushed. The CARES Act, when it was passed in March, gives schools about $13.5 billion in aid. But in April, DeVos said districts need to use that money to provide services for all students in private schools, too. Now, many in Congress since then, including top Republicans, have said that's not what we meant. Districts were supposed to provide these services based only on how many low-income kids these private schools serve. According to an analysis from the Learning Policy Institute, DeVos' reading of the law would increase private schools' share of CARES Act money from about $127 million to $1.5 billion.

MCCAMMON: A pretty big difference there. How did districts and states respond?

TURNER: Yeah. Most were confused. There was also a lot of anger. Though when DeVos first put this out there at the end of April, it was guidance, which means it's nonbinding. So a lot of districts and even some state leaders said, no way, we're not doing this. The head of public schools in Indiana tweeted, I will not play political agenda games with COVID relief funds. But today, Sarah, the plot thickened because what was once guidance became a rule - which, again, as we said, effective immediately. It also comes with the force of law.

MCCAMMON: And, Cory, is there any flexibility in this new rule, any concession to the public school voices who were fighting against the earlier guidance?

TURNER: So there is an alternative for districts that just want to spend the money on their low-income students. In that case, they only need to pay for private school services based on the number of low-income kids those private schools serve. But because of the way the rule is written, some high-need schools, public schools, could get left out altogether. This option also comes with a bunch of restrictions that essentially make it pretty undesirable for districts to use this option. Cleaning is one example. A district could not use this money to clean and disinfect all of its schools because, obviously, that would benefit all of its students, not just its low-income kids.

I asked four different school funding experts today if they see this rule as a compromise from DeVos' earlier hard line in the guidance. And all four of them told me, no way, she is clearly doubling down. And this matters, Sarah, because we're now three months out from the CARES Act, and districts really need this money.

MCCAMMON: That's NPR's Cory Turner.

Thanks, Cory.

TURNER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.