For following the law, Indiana state superintendent Jennifer McCormick is a model leader, according to a scholar of federal education policy and history. She's showing courage in rejecting U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos' guidance to steer billions in pandemic relief dollars to private schools.
In Indiana alone, the nonpublic school portion of the state's $215 million in education relief funds would have more than tripled under the federal agency guidelines: from $4.9 million statewide to $15.4 million.
“The law is on McCormick's side,” writes Derek Black, professor of law at the University of South Carolina, in an article posted on theconversation.com. “Her action offered a clear path forward for state and local officials across the nation who don't believe that waiting for the political process to correct itself is fair to the country's children who need help now.”
McCormick is wisely advising Indiana public schools to disregard DeVos' directive to share a disproportionate amount of money with private and parochial schools.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, is clear in how billions in assistance to K-12 schools should be distributed: School districts “shall provide equitable services in the same manner as provided under Title I” for educating disadvantaged students. Federal lawmakers clearly intended the money to be distributed based on poverty.
But DeVos directed public school districts to distribute the money to the private schools within their boundaries based not on the number of students from poverty they serve, but on total enrollment.
“The way we are distributing monies now does not eliminate (funding for non-public schools),” McCormick said in an online information session Tuesday. “It just makes sure that the equitable services for (private) and public schools goes to those students who are most at risk. ... We chose to go with the intent of the law, to address the most at-risk.”
DeVos' directive shortchanges even children from poverty within private and parochial schools. If relief funds were distributed on the basis of enrollment, Bishop Dwenger High School, with just 16% of its 1,014 students qualifying for free- or reduced-price lunch, would collect more federal money than Bishop Luers High School, with about 44% of its 511 students within the poverty guidelines.
Along with traditional public schools and public charter schools, the 325-plus private and parochial schools participating in Indiana's Choice Scholarship voucher program received their state distribution of tuition fees even though schools were closed. Unlike traditional public schools, private and parochial schools were eligible to apply for forgivable loans under the federal Paycheck Protection Program.
Indiana's public schools were already underfunded when the pandemic struck. Fort Wayne Community Schools, struggling to provide instruction because it did not have take-home computers for each of its nearly 30,000 students, will receive about $10.3 million in federal relief money. About $1.2 million of that amount will be distributed to private and parochial schools within its boundaries, administered at the public school district's expense. If the Indiana schools chief followed the federal directive, the distribution to nonpublic schools would have doubled. That's more than $1 million less for the urban district to cover technology and other expenses resulting from COVID-19.
Hoosiers shouldn't take McCormick's principled stand for granted. In Tennessee, the chief districts and schools officer said that state will follow the federal Department of Education guidelines in distributing its $260 million in federal CARES funding, according to Chalkbeat Tennessee. That means $12 million less for traditional public schools in Shelby County, including the Memphis schools, which primarily serve impoverished children.
Tennessee's top education official is appointed by its Republican governor. McCormick, a Republican sometimes at odds with other GOP state officials, is Indiana's last elected superintendent. She has authority to determine how the state's share of K-12 education relief is distributed – at least until her term expires at the end of this year and the governor chooses an education leader.
McCormick's leadership and courageous stand for Indiana's most vulnerable students will be missed, and Hoosier voters should understand how their voice has been diminished by the upcoming education change.