School districts are also to reserve a portion of those funds to ensure equitable services for any low-income students who may attend private schools. That’s in keeping with a practice in place since Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.
The department’s new guidance calls for a different method. Public school systems are being told to share these new federal funds based on the total number of students who attend private schools – rather than the much smaller number of low-income students in these schools. In other words, public school districts are being told to reserve funds for roughly 6 million total private school students, of which only an estimated 300,000 are low-income children.
By contrast, 52.3% of the nation’s 50 million public school students are low-income.
Moreover, private schools, unlike public schools, are already eligible for federal payroll protection funding under the CARES Act because they are considered small businesses.
Shortchanging the poor
Only about 10% of the nation’s students attend private schools. This is something Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has long aimed to change. She has consistently supported policies that would increase public funding for private school enrollment in the form of vouchers and tax credits. From this perspective, the current policy – while inconsistent with the law, equity and history – makes sense. But this time, DeVos’ private school policy would directly shortchange poor students.
The accounting method will require public schools – which are only receiving new federal money based on their poor students – to reserve multiple times more money for private schools than the CARES Act requires.
In Passaic, New Jersey, where the majority of public school students are poor, the district will need to reserve $1.4 million instead of $300,000 for private school students, according to an education advocacy group in that state. Montana estimates it will need to reserve $1.5 million for private schools rather than $206,469 it believes the law requires, The New York Times reports.
This will only increase the challenges that the highest poverty schools face. Before the pandemic even hit, public schools serving the highest-poverty communities had $1,000 less per student than those educating affluent students. These shortfalls are likely to expand based on current economic conditions.
One solution to the current problem is for Congress to reiterate its original intent even more clearly. The $3 trillion relief bill passed by the House includes a provision that would do that.
The quicker option is for Congress to use its oversight powers to force the Education Department to concede that it made an error. That happened earlier this year when it reversed course on its plan to change the method for allocating funds to rural schools.
The law is on McCormick’s side. Her action offered a clear path forward for state and local officials across the nation who don’t believe that waiting for the political process to correct itself is fair to the country’s children who need help now.