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Education Dept. Rule Limits How Schools Can Spend Vital Aid Money


Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is standing firm. She took a lot of heat in May after issuing guidance to school districts, saying they should spend hundreds of billions of dollars from the CARES Act to help private school students. Today she issued a new rule, effective immediately, making it harder for districts to refuse. NPR education correspondent Cory Turner has been covering this fight and joins us now.

Hi, Cory.


MCCAMMON: So let's start by digging a little deeper into this fight between DeVos and public school advocates. What's really going on here?

TURNER: Yeah. It starts with the basic fact that school budgets across the country right now are getting crushed. The CARES Act, when it was passed in March, gives schools about $13.5 billion in aid. But in April, DeVos said districts need to use that money to provide services for all students in private schools, too. Now, many in Congress since then, including top Republicans, have said that's not what we meant. Districts were supposed to provide these services based only on how many low-income kids these private schools serve. According to an analysis from the Learning Policy Institute, DeVos' reading of the law would increase private schools' share of CARES Act money from about $127 million to $1.5 billion.

MCCAMMON: A pretty big difference there. How did districts and states respond?

TURNER: Yeah. Most were confused. There was also a lot of anger. Though when DeVos first put this out there at the end of April, it was guidance, which means it's nonbinding. So a lot of districts and even some state leaders said, no way, we're not doing this. The head of public schools in Indiana tweeted, I will not play political agenda games with COVID relief funds. But today, Sarah, the plot thickened because what was once guidance became a rule - which, again, as we said, effective immediately. It also comes with the force of law.

MCCAMMON: And, Cory, is there any flexibility in this new rule, any concession to the public school voices who were fighting against the earlier guidance?

TURNER: So there is an alternative for districts that just want to spend the money on their low-income students. In that case, they only need to pay for private school services based on the number of low-income kids those private schools serve. But because of the way the rule is written, some high-need schools, public schools, could get left out altogether. This option also comes with a bunch of restrictions that essentially make it pretty undesirable for districts to use this option. Cleaning is one example. A district could not use this money to clean and disinfect all of its schools because, obviously, that would benefit all of its students, not just its low-income kids.

I asked four different school funding experts today if they see this rule as a compromise from DeVos' earlier hard line in the guidance. And all four of them told me, no way, she is clearly doubling down. And this matters, Sarah, because we're now three months out from the CARES Act, and districts really need this money.

MCCAMMON: That's NPR's Cory Turner.

Thanks, Cory.

TURNER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.