The Journal Gazette
Thursday, May 14, 2020 1:00 am

State tells districts to ignore aid guidance

McCormick: Allot relief to 'most at-risk students'

NIKI KELLY | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – Indiana education officials have instructed school districts to ignore U.S. Department of Education guidance that would have tripled federal pandemic aid to private schools at the expense of children in public schools.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick said Tuesday the state “will distribute funds according to Congressional intent and a plain reading of the law. I will not play political agenda games with COVID relief funds. Our most at-risk students depend on this commitment.”

The federal CARES Act provided billions for schools in an education stabilization fund that was to be distributed using the Title I formula – based on the number of low-income students a school has. Both public and private schools are eligible.

Indiana's K-12 cut is about $215 million, and Allen County districts will receive more than $13.3 million.

But Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of Education, released guidance that directed the money be distributed based on total enrollment instead.

That meant Indiana private schools would have seen their share tripled – from $4.9 million to $15.4 million.

McCormick's letter to Indiana's schools said, “According to the Indiana Attorney General's Office, 'the guidance issued by the [U.S.] Department of Education is just that, guidance.' ”

Gov. Eric Holcomb said Wednesday he is reaching out to McCormick to talk about her preference.

“I want to make sure I have the full picture before weighing in,” he said. 

Public school districts forward the money to private schools in their boundaries.

“We were very disappointed to hear that Dr. McCormick has decided to ignore the federal guidance on the equitable participation of non-public schools as it relates to the Elementary and Secondary Education Emergency Relief fund. We contend that as an emergency relief program the intent was to serve as many schools and students as possible,” said John Elcesser, executive director of the Indiana Non-Public Education Association. “It is clear that all schools have been impacted by this pandemic.”

He said even using the federal allocation, the nonpublic school share would be only 7% of the total dollars. Considering nonpublic schools educate between 7% and 10% of K-12 students in Indiana that certainly seems equitable, Elcesser added.

Indiana Department of Education spokesman Adam Baker said schools now have to apply to the state, then seek reimbursement. Local districts have to provide evidence that money was sent to nonpublic schools.

Baker sent a statement from McCormick that said “it's within our authority to determine what direction we go. We will focus the limited dollars on our most at-risk. Additional dollars will certainly be needed to cast a wider net and address other needs, and I hope congress will have the will to do what's necessary for our future – fund our kids.”

Fort Wayne Community Schools will receive about $10.3 million; Southwest Allen County Schools $360,000; Northwest Allen County Schools $367,000; and East Allen County Schools about $2.3 million.

The majority of the funding will stay with the districts after private schools receive their cut.

FWCS spokeswoman Krista Stockman said the districts will receive about $10.3 million with about $1.2 million going to nonpublic schools. The private school portion would have doubled under the enrollment formula.

“We are still working on exactly what the money will be used for, but we certainly have some technology needs to address as we move to 1:1 for the 2020-21 school year,” she said, referring to technology provided to students. “We also had significant expenses with printing and mailing packets of learning materials to 12,000+ students. There will likely be other expenses that emerge as we work on our plans for re-opening schools.”

Keith Gambill, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, agreed with McCormick's decision on the funding.

“Secretary DeVos shouldn't be using a pandemic to push her privatization agenda,” Gambill said. “Public school educators have done critical work during the pandemic – serving meals, revising curriculum and keeping students learning and engaged. This crisis has also further exposed the need for more resources for the very students Sec. DeVos' guidance would deprive of needed federal funds.” 

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