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Illinois Directs Districts to Set Aside Federal COVID Aid for All Private School Students

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Illinois is telling school districts they must set aside federal coronavirus relief money to account for all their local private school students, and to put a certain amount in escrow, due to an upcoming rule from U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. 

The decision by Illinois indicates that DeVos' push to direct roughly $13 billion in coronavirus aid to private school students in general, through a provision of the relief law known as equitable services, is having an affect. 

In CARES Act guidance released last month, DeVos said that equitable services, which are typically reserved for disadvantaged and at-risk students at private schools to provide things like tutoring and technology licenses, must be provided to to all private school students within district boundaries.

DeVos says her interpretation of how the $13 billion fund for districts must work matches the intent of the CARES Act to provide help for all students, irrespective of where they go to school, during the coronavirus pandemic. But state and local leaders, as well as Democrats in Congress, have argued this interpretation does not match the law and improperly takes money away from public schools struggling to deal with the fallout from COVD-19. ("CARES" stands for Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security.) 

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee, said he differs from DeVos on her interpretation of the CARES Act, but has not indicated he'll push for Congress to nullify her guidance. 

Earlier this week, DeVos announced that to "resolve" the issue, she would release a proposed rule on the subject and make it available for public comment. Turning the guidance into a rule would effectively force districts to comply, although the rule could be subject to a legal challenge. 

In the 2017-18 school year, Illinois had roughly 1,350 private schools enrolling 216,000 students, according to federal data. Only five states had higher total enrollment in private schools. 

Jaclyn Matthews, a spokesperson for the Illinois state school board, said in an email Friday that the board has "directed public school districts to set aside the amount based on total enrollment in nonpublic schools within the district boundaries," pending further word from the Education Department. That dollar amount must first be determined by local school districts in consultation with private schools about what equitable services for all local private school students would cost. 

"Evidence of that consultation and the set aside amount will be included within each district's grant application," Matthews wrote, a reference to the fact that districts must apply for CARES money from the state, which is the initial recipient of the aid from the Education Department. 

Matthews added that "services will be provided initially based upon the lesser amount of low-income enrollment in nonpublic schools."  That's a reference to the amount that would be reserved for the lower number of students who typically qualify for equitable services under Title I of the Every Student Succeeds Act. The difference betwen that lesser dollar amount and the total dollar amount must be held in escrow.

Depending on what the Education Department does, she noted, the funds put in escrow could ultimately flow to all local private school students, or be incorporated back into public school budgets "through an amendment."

In a letter to state schools chiefs earlier this week, DeVos recommended that districts put money in escrow to account for the upcoming rule about CARES and equitable services. 

After DeVos released the CARES Act guidance—which is nonbinding—at least two states, Indiana and Maine, said they would not follow it, but Alexander's home state of Tennessee said that it would. 

Photo: U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos on Capitol Hill earlier this year. -- Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images


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