Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick is taking bold action by rejecting guidance from the U.S. Department of Education and distributing emergency aid for schools the way Congress intended.
It’s remarkable that, thanks to McCormick, Indiana appears to be the first state to openly push back against U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and refuse to follow guidance that it deems to be contrary to the law.
At issue is funding from the CARES Act, which provides $13.2 billion to help schools respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools can use the money to improve technology, protect student health and plan for the next school year.
“The guidance is contrary to the act,” Indiana Department of Education spokesman Adam Baker said. “Our obligation is to follow the act.”
The CARES Act says the money should be distributed in the same manner that federal Title I funds are distributed. But DeVos issued guidance for the law that would change that approach and divert funding to private schools.
The Title I program provides federal support for public schools, with funding determined by the number of students from low-income families. It includes a provision that requires school districts to provide “equitable services” for students in local private schools. Funding for those services is based on the number of students from low-income families who attend the private schools.
But DeVos’ nonbinding guidance called for a different approach. It would base CARES Act allocations on how many students live in Title 1 school attendance areas but attend private schools, even if they aren’t from low-income families.
Indiana public school districts and charter schools are getting $215 million from the CARES Act, about 3% of what they receive in state funding per year.
Baker said some Indiana districts could have to share at least three times as much money with private schools under DeVos’ guidance as under the language of the act. According to Chalkbeat Indiana, DeVos’ interpretation would triple the statewide share going to private schools, from $4.9 million to $15.4 million.
Private schools welcomed DeVos’ guidance at the same time that some private schools, including some that charge tens of thousands of dollars in tuition, were getting emergency loans through the government’s Paycheck Protection Program. The American Federation for Children, an advocacy group formerly headed by DeVos, has encouraged private schools to apply for the loans.
But advocates for public schools criticized the guidance. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and Dan Domenech, head of the school superintendents’ association, urged states and districts to ignore it.
“Prioritizing the needs of the wealthy few over the needs of everyday people is the wrong priority — and it ends here,” they said in a statement.
So far, Indiana appears to be the only state that has openly rejected the guidance, said Anne Hyslop, who follows education policy as assistant director of the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance for Excellent Education.
McCormick, in a memo to school administrators, said Indiana will implement the law as written by Congress, not as interpreted by the secretary of education.
“This final decision ensures that the funds are distributed according to Congressional intent and a plain reading of the law, which prioritizes communities and schools with high-poverty who are at most risk and in need of the additional funds,” the memo says.
Standing up to DeVos may not win McCormick many friends with Indiana’s private school-friendly Republican legislators. But it will further endear her to advocates for public schools, which educate the vast majority of Indiana’s students.
Politically, legally and ethically, it’s the right thing to do.