May 28, 2020
Texas Education Agency officials are advising school districts to follow controversial federal guidance on a key section of the coronavirus relief law, which some education advocates believe will result in private schools getting millions of dollars more at the expense of public schools.
The guidance, issued in late April by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ administration, delivers added financial support from the $2 trillion CARES Act to private schools across Texas, many of which are expecting to lose students and money as families tighten their budgets during the coronavirus pandemic.
However, some public school leaders believe Devos, a strong supporter of private schools, is misinterpreting the federal coronavirus relief law to their detriment. While the ultimate impact of the guidance on Texas schools is not known, public schools likely stand to lose and private schools stand to gain tens of millions of dollars.
In a statement, TEA officials said the agency “plans to follow the guidance” from DeVos’ administration. Education leaders in at least three states — Indiana, Maine and Pennsylvania — have advised their school districts to disregard the guidance or questioned federal officials on their interpretation.
“Until, and if, Congress or the federal courts require that the U.S. Department of Education change its present guidance, Texas will follow that guidance, in order to ensure that critically needed federal funds are not jeopardized through noncompliance,” a TEA spokesman said.
The dust-up centers on whether private schools’ share of $13 billion in federal relief funds — including $1.3 billion allocated to Texas — should be based on the number of low-income students they enroll or the total number of students they serve.
The CARES Act states that relief funds should be distributed “in the same manner” that money is allocated to public and private schools through Title I, a federal program that provides financial support to schools serving low-income students. Under the existing process, public school districts receive Title I funding and provide a portion of the money to private schools for secular services based on their number of low-income students.
DeVos’ administration, however, ruled in late April that CARES Act funding should flow to private schools based on their total number of students. In a letter sent last week to the Council of Chief State School Officers, DeVos wrote that her critics’ interpretation of the law “would improperly discriminate against an entire class of children.”
“A growing list of non-public schools have announced they will not be able to re-open, and those closures are concentrated in low-income and middle-class communities,” DeVos wrote. “I would encourage educators everywhere to be as concerned about those students and teachers as they are with those in public schools.”
DeVos’ interpretation has drawn rebukes in recent weeks from the chairmen of the U.S. House and Senate education committees, who are a Democrat and Republican, respectively. U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., told reporters last week that he believed “most of Congress was expecting” the at-issue funds would be allocated “in the same way we distribute Title I money.”
Department of Education officials did not respond to written questions about the dispute.
Texas public schools, which take in tens of billions of dollars annually, typically provide a relatively meager amount of money — about $13.2 million in 2018-19 — to private schools for services supporting low-income students. The largest allocation, $3 million, came from Houston ISD, whose administrators said they still are gathering information about the CARES Act and awaiting further TEA guidance.
The potential increase in private school support remains to be seen, largely because it is unknown how many private schools will seek CARES Act funds. Even under the DeVos administration’s guidance, private schools stand to receive only a fraction of Texas’ federal relief funds given that their enrollment — nearly 250,000 students — is dwarfed by the 5.5 million children in public schools.
Still, the money could help buoy private schools facing enrollment and tuition losses.
Laura Colangelo, executive director of the Texas Private Schools Association, said a survey of 320 member schools in recent days found they expected enrollment to drop 10 percent to 15 percent for the upcoming school year. In addition, about 30 school leaders said they were “likely or very likely to close” by August — a fate already realized at four small, Houston-area Catholic schools.
“It’s significant to us for sure,” Colangelo said of the CARES Act funding. “It could mean the difference between schools staying open or not.”
For the 59 schools under the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston Catholic Schools accreditation umbrella, the federal relief funding would create “huge possibilities” to provide tutoring for students, training for teachers and cleaning supplies to keep schools safe, Superintendent Debra Haney said. The Archdiocese expects to see a 10 percent to 20 percent decline in enrollment across its campuses, with some schools possibly experiencing greater losses, she said.
“We are encouraging our schools to seek their fair share of the equitable services that should be provided to them through the CARES Act,” Haney said in an email. “As taxpayers, our families are entitled to have students benefit from the dollars received by the local education agency.”
Some public school advocates, however, say DeVos’ interpretation of the law improperly directs money away from lower-income students who will need the most support once campuses reopen.
“Hopefully, there’s going to be a fix there, either through Congress or the courts, that gives much more clear guidance,” said Kevin Brown, executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators. “I think the legislation is very confusing, and hopefully it can be cleaned up and clarified quickly.
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