Schools struggle with shifting rules on federal coronavirus relief money

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KENTFIELD, CALIFORNIA – APRIL 01: A classroom sits empty at Kent Middle School on April 01, 2020 in Kentfield, California. California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that schools will remain closed through the end of the academic year due to shelter-in-place orders necessitated by COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

(CNN) — It’s been two months since Congress allocated about $13 billion for K-12 schools in its coronavirus-related emergency aid package — but the money hasn’t yet reached many school districts amid questions over how it should be spent.

School districts across the country, which quickly shifted to remote learning in March, are already winding down lessons. Now, as they consider what reopening in the fall could look like, they’re unsure how much federal aid to expect.

Guidance issued by US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in late April instructed states to allocate a bigger portion of the federal assistance to private schools, which some Democrat and Republican lawmakers and state leaders say is counter to the intent of the law. DeVos said last week that she intends to formalize her guidance by moving ahead with a legal rule-making process — which could take at least a monthand further hold up planning for the fall.

“The intention was to get these emergency funds down to schools as quickly as possible,” said Danny Carlson, the director of policy and advocacy at the National Association of Elementary School Principals. “But the move by the Department freezes local education leaders and decision makers because now they don’t know what is allowable and what’s not,” he added.

More money for private schools

Private schools were set to receive aid under the $2 trillion congressional package passed in March. But the guidance from DeVos, a longtime advocate for private and religious schools as well as charters, instructs states to use a calculation that would ultimately funnel more money to private schools.

Instead of basing the allocation of money on the number of low-income students enrolled it calls for counting all private school students in the calculation. That would shift some of the money away from public schools.

This guidance “could significantly harm the vulnerable students who were intended to benefit the most from the critical federal Covid-19 education relief funds Congress has provided,” Carissa Moffat Miller, executive director at the Council of Chief State School Officers, wrote in a letter sent to DeVos earlier this month.

Private schools in Louisiana, for example, would receive 267% more funding under DeVos’ guidance, according to the letter.

But DeVos has noted that private schools are struggling, too, and many have said they won’t be able to reopen.

“Although I understand the reflex to share as little as possible with students and teachers outside of their control, I would remind states and LEAs (local education agencies) that their non-public school peers have also been overwhelmed by Covid-19,” DeVos wrote in response to Miller’s letter.

“I would encourage educators everywhere to be as concerned about those students and teachers as they are with those in public schools,” she added.

Leading Democratic lawmakers, including Rep. Bobby Scott of Virignia, Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, said that DeVos’ guidance “seeks to repurpose hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars intended for public school students to provide services for private school students.”

Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, chair of the Senate Education Committee, also acknowledged that the Secretary’s guidance wasn’t how Congress expected the funds to be used. The law referenced a calculation used for Title 1 funds for low-income students.

“I think most of us thought that the money from CARES Act would be distributed about the same way Title I is distributed,” Alexander said in a call with reporters, according to a transcript provided by his office.

Schools need the money to reopen

Some states, such as Mississippi, Indiana and Maine, are recommending districts follow the law rather than Department of Education’s guidance, which isn’t binding.

In Mississippi, Superintendent of Education Carey Wright has decided to move ahead and ignore DeVos’ guidance. The state will allocate the funds based on how many low-income students are enrolled in a private school rather than the total number of students.

“To be honest, the law was very explicit. Based on the legal guidance we’ve been given, I don’t know how we could go wrong by following the law,” Wright said.

Her agency is developing a new form schools will need to submit to apply for the money, which should be ready in a matter of weeks. Once schools get the funds, they’ll be able to spend it on a broad range of things to help them address the impact of Covid-19.

Purchasing new technology to help develop distance learning, cleaning products, and personal protective equipment are the most immediate needs, Wright said.

She has put forth a plan that would combine state and education funds to give every student a laptop and make sure they can connect to the internet. Currently, about 20% of the student population don’t have internet access.

She also wants to make sure teachers have access to teaching materials online. Currently, schools are designing what kind of schedule to implement come the fall. If students are coming to school in shifts, it’s possible districts will need to hire more staff.

“We’re planning for a reopening — and for a potential second closing and reopening. We’re worried about a fall resurgence,” Wright said.

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