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PED urges school districts to ignore CARES Act guidelines

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

The New Mexico Public Education Department is suggesting school districts ignore guidance from the U.S. Department of Education that would result in more resources being channeled to private school students.

At issue is the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act’s $108 million appropriation to New Mexico schools.

Under distribution direction sent by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ agency in April, the PED estimates private schools would be eligible for roughly $6.7 million in resources for their students.

But under the state’s interpretation of how this money should be allotted, private schools would likely get less than half of that – leaving more funds for public school students.

Scott Griggs, executive director of Independent Schools Association of the Southwest, said many private schools are facing financial hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Resources are important especially during this time as all schools are threatened and hurting because we are so tuition-dependent,” he said. “There will be more families unable to pay those tuitions next year.”

PED Secretary Ryan Stewart wrote in a letter to school leaders that the department’s stance is founded on equity and its reading of the CARES Act’s intent.

A school district’s portion of the state’s $108 million appropriation – from a component of the CARES Act called the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund – is distributed based on Title I information. Title I is a federal funding stream aimed at helping students from low-income families.

Under typical Title I procedure, districts have to offer money indirectly to private schools by covering the cost of services, such as tutoring, according to the PED; funding isn’t distributed to private schools directly. The price tag of the services paid for by the district is based on the number of the private school’s students who are from low-income families and might otherwise attend a public Title I school.

Stewart is recommending that districts continue using this calculation when it comes time to offer services to private schools through CARES Act funding.

“Equity and logic dictate that the amount of equitable services received by non-public schools under the CARES Act also must be calculated pursuant to Title I criteria,” Stewart wrote to school leaders.

However, the DeVos direction sent out in April recommends that the amount for CARES Act-funded services for private schools be based on the total enrollment of a participating private school – not just the number of students they serve who are from low-income families. In May, the U.S. Department of Education outlined its intent to make a formal rule on this topic amid the controversy.

Nancy Martira, a PED spokeswoman, told the Journal that about 25% of private schools typically use such services in New Mexico. However, the PED is anticipating more private schools in the state will seek resources under the CARES Act, she added.

Martira said that the PED is aware of potential legal challenges this debate may result in, however, she said the DeVos guidance is non-binding.

While school districts will ultimately decide how to move forward, the PED’s rejection of the U.S. Department of Education guidance was solidified in a formal note to school leaders across the state sent out in late May.

“PED, along with many other states and legal organizations, strongly disagrees with (the U.S. Department of Education’s) interpretation of the CARES Act, and therefore we reiterate our guidance that equitable services should continue to be calculated in the manner in which it is calculated under Title I,” the memo says.

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