On the heels of controversial guidance about how private school students are broadly eligible for federal COVID-19 relief, the U.S. Department of Education is pointing out how Congress said certain public school districts are not eligible for the biggest pot of that coronavirus school aid.
In a "Frequently Asked Questions" document published earlier this month, the Education Department says districts that did not receive federal Title I money for disadvantaged students in fiscal year 2019—the last fiscal year—are not eligible to receive CARES Act money that's earmarked for districts.
The FAQ document from the department doesn't clearly say why. When asked for the department's reasoning, spokeswoman Angela Morabito said in a Tuesday statement that, "Congress determines eligibility. Congress decided that a district that did not receive Title I funds in FY19 is not eligible for an ESSER formula subgrant." (Quick acronym guide: "CARES" stands for Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, while "ESSER" stands for Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief.)
Morabito didn't highlight what part of the CARES Act she was referring to. But a section of the CARES Act speaks to her point. It says that this elementary and secondary relief fund shall be awarded to districts "in proportion to the amount of funds such local educational agencies and charter schools that are local educational agencies received under part A of title I ... in the most recent fiscal year."
So if a district gets this CARES money "in proportion" to its Title I money, and it didn't get any Title I money, its CARES money "in proportion" is $0.
How many districts are we talking about here? Recent data indicates that it's a relatively small number. Fiscal year 2019 information shows that of the roughly 13,200 districts for which there's Education Department data, 472 districts, or roughly 3.5 percent, reported not receiving Title I aid, although that number could be somewhat higher. Some of those districts may have chosen not to seek that money due to paperwork or other bureaucratic requirements.
The department's FAQ document identifies two exceptions to this rule about districts that didn't get Title I, and they both involve charter schools. The document says "a new charter school (district) that did not exist in the 2019-2020 school year or a charter school (district) whose significant expansion makes it eligible for Title I, Part A funds in the 2020-2021 school year" are eligible for CARES money for districts.
Districts do have other ways of getting COVID-19 relief under the CARES Act.
That's because they're still eligible to receive a portion of CARES district money that states can set aside for their own purposes; that set-aside can be up to 10 percent. They're also eligible for an entirely separate CARES pot of money—about $3 billion—that's controlled by governors. But there's no guarantee such districts will get that money.
Some critics might see an irony in that department is pointing out how Congress restricted CARES Act district aid to only those districts that recently received Title I, yet also interpreting the law to mean that districts must set aside CARES relief for equitable services—think things like technology licenses and parent engagement—for all private school students within their boundaries, not just those typically eligible under Title I.
Critics have accused U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos of using that guidance to try to bail out private schools at the expense of traditional public schools. Morabito flatly rejected those criticisms, saying, "There's nothing in the CARES Act to suggest a student cannot receive services funded through ESSER based on student characteristics or whether the student attends a public or private school. None of the above is inconsistent with the Department's previous statements."
Photo: Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks at a news conference in 2018 in Coral Springs, Fla., following a visit to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. ( Lynne Sladky/AP)
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