Maine won’t follow controversial guidance from the U.S. Department of Education that would have given a boost to private schools in the amount of federal coronavirus relief aid they receive.

The decision comes as the state is preparing to distribute about $39 million in direct reimbursements for virus-related expenses incurred by K-12 districts and made available through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

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Education Secretary Betsy DeVos says CARES Act funds should be distributed to private schools based on total enrollments, not just the number of low-income students at private schools. Associated Press/Alex Brandon

Allocations to public schools rely on districts’ eligibility for federal Title I funds, which are based on the number of low-income students a district has, and the CARES Act also calls for districts to rely on Title I numbers when deciding how much funding to allocate to private schools.

But guidance from U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos instead says the funds should be distributed to private schools based on total enrollments, rather than just the number of low-income students at private schools.

That guidance has sparked controversy, especially from public school advocates who have argued that the DeVos’ guidance will result in non-public schools receiving more funding than Congress intended.

The Maine School Management Association, a nonprofit advocating for public schools, estimated the difference in Maine could mean $250,000 of the CARES funding going to private schools versus about $1.5 million under the U.S. Department of Education guidance.

In a notice to superintendents Friday, Maine Education Commissioner Pender Makin said her department had sought but not received clarification from the U.S. Department of Education about how to distribute the funds and so would be following the language in the CARES Act.

“As required by the CARES Act, the funds and services target our most disadvantaged students, regardless of whether they attend public or private schools,” Makin wrote. She said that while the language in the federal guidance is not binding, the language in the CARES Act is legal and binding.

Other states, including Indiana and Pennsylvania, also have criticized or said they plan to reject the U.S. Department of Education’s guidance.

Before Maine released allocations of the federal funds Tuesday, some districts and the Maine School Management Association had expressed concern about the federal guidance.

“This will provide more resources to our schools to address the pandemic either through reimbursements or things they will have to do that are unexpected,” said Eileen King, deputy executive director of the Maine School Management Association and executive director of the Maine School Superintendents Association, reacting to Maine’s decision Tuesday.

“It’s a great support for our public and private schools. The funds are a great support to all schools and I’m glad they’re being disbursed by law.”

South Portland Superintendent Ken Kunin, who had written to Maine’s congressional delegation expressing concerns about the funding formula being advocated for by the U.S. Department of Education, also applauded Makin’s decision.

South Portland will receive $516,209 in CARES Act relief, with just over 1 percent, or about $6,300 to be allocated for private schools. Under the federal guidance, the district’s share to private schools would have been about 9 percent, or around $48,500, Kunin said.

“It is still important that this be clarified at the federal level so that the maximum amount of funds possible goes to students most in need as directed in the CARES Act,” Kunin said in an email Tuesday.

A federal stimulus package approved by the House last week includes language that would clarify the funding is to be distributed under the Title I formula.

“It’s shameful that that Trump Administration would use this pandemic to advance their extreme agenda to undermine public education,” Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, said in a statement. “Schools and educators across the state have worked tirelessly this spring to ensure that students and families have what they need to keep learning under difficult circumstances.

“Betsy DeVos cannot simply decide to deviate from a formula that has been established for years, especially when it diverts money from public schools. Last week, I voted for passage of the Heroes Act to block USED’s guidance from going forward.”

A spokesman for Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent who has also been critical of DeVos, said King has been pushing for relief to be sent directly to states to be spent at their discretion.

“Senator King believes that direct aid to states is the simplest and most efficient way that our tax dollars can target the needs of educators, first responders, medical professionals and civil servants who are all giving to their communities,” spokesman Matthew Felling said in an email.

“The K-12 education funding we passed in the CARES Act was intended to provide relief to students and schools with the greatest need in response to the COVID-19 crisis,” Rep. Jared Golden, D-2nd District, said in a statement. “In our state and across the country, that need is overwhelmingly found in public schools, not private schools.

“I think that the Department of Education should change this guidance so that it is in line with the law Congress passed. In the meantime, the department’s guidance is not binding, so Maine school districts should know they are free to ignore it.”

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said in a statement that the funding is intended to help K-12 schools meet the needs of their students during the pandemic, including providing tools and resources for distance learning, promoting students’ health and safety, and developing plans for the next academic year.

“The statute is straightforward: ‘equitable services’ are to be provided ‘in the same manner as under section 1117’ of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which focuses on services for low-income students attending local private schools,” Collins said. “Although not binding, the Department of Education’s guidance is confusing and may not be consistent with the law.”

About 7,800 of Maine’s 182,500 students are enrolled in private schools. Marianne Pelletier, superintendent of Maine Catholic Schools, said in an email Tuesday she was exploring the full impact of the Maine DOE’s decision before commenting.

Eliza Alexander, interim executive director of the Independent Schools Association of Northern New England, said in an email Tuesday night that “it is unfortunate that the rhetoric around what is a federal issue of interpretation of legislation is pitting public and private schools against each other.

“Many of Maine’s independent schools serve primarily publicly funded students and provide all of the same services as their public school counterparts,” Alexander said. “Whatever the resolution of the issue is, this money needs to be distributed as soon as possible to the schools who need it.”


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