Indiana Superintendent of Public Education Jennifer McCormick was on solid legal ground when she rejected federal guidance on distributing CARES Act funding to private schools. Three federal courts have now made that clear.
Most recently, in a decision that applies nationwide, a judge ruled that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was wrong when she and the U.S. Department of Education tried to divert more funding to private schools than Congress intended.
“In enacting the education funding provisions of the CARES Act, Congress spoke with a clear voice,” wrote U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich. “It declared that relief funding shall be provided to private schools ‘in the same manner as provided’ (in federal school funding law). Contrary to the Department’s interim final rule, that cannot mean the opposite of what it says.”
The CARES Act, which Congress approved in March, included $13 billion to help schools deal with costs associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Indiana public school districts and charter schools were provided about $215 million.
Congress said the money should be allocated in the same way as federal Title I funding. Under the Title I formula, public school districts must use some of those funds to provide “equitable services” to local private schools, with the amount based on the number of private-school students from low-income families.
DeVos, however, issued guidance and later a legally binding rule that said funding for private schools should be based on their total enrollment, not their enrollment of disadvantaged students. In some districts, that would mean a significant funding shift from public to private schools.
Under McCormick’s leadership, Indiana was the first state to reject DeVos’ guidance. The Indiana Department of Education was prepared to use its own CARES Act funds to offset any losses to public schools if DeVos’ interpretation was upheld in court.
Several states, school districts, parents and advocacy groups went to court to challenge DeVos. Judges in California and Washington state temporarily blocked her from implementing the rule. Hopefully last week’s ruling by Judge Friedrich — who was appointed in 2017 by President Donald Trump — will be its death blow.