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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- State education agencies in Kentucky and Indiana are taking different approaches in doling out millions of federal stimulus dollars to private schools affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, with Kentucky private schools poised to get a greater share of federal relief than their counterparts across the Ohio River.

At issue is how each state has interpreted directives regarding Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funding for “equitable services” to private schools through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act passed by Congress.

The Kentucky Department of Education is following guidance issued by the U.S. Department of Education on April 30 that says CARES Act money should flow through local school districts to private schools based on overall enrollment data.

By contrast, the Indiana Department of Education is relying on its own interpretation of the CARES Act and has directed school corporations to distribute funds based on the numbers of impoverished students served by private schools under Title I of the Every Students Succeeds Act during the 2019-20 school year.

A memo from Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick to school districts on Tuesday says her office consulted with the attorney general’s office and national partners before reaching the determination that funds should be “distributed according to Congressional intent and a plain reading of the law, which prioritizes communities and schools with high-poverty who are at most risk and in need of the additional funds.”

States received ESSER funding in proportion to their Title I funding under the CARES Act and were directed to distribute money to districts based on their shares of Title I under the CARES Act. Sixty percent of Governor’s Emergency Education Relief money was based on populations of those age 5 through 24 and 40% was based on the numbers of impoverished youth in K-12 schools, according to the federal stimulus.

IDOE Press Secretary Adam Baker said depending on which districts were affected, the amount of ESSER funds directed to private schools could have tripled from $4.9 million to $15.4 million based on the U.S. Department of Education’s guidance.

Indiana received $214.5 million in ESSER funding and $61.6 million in GEER dollars through the federal stimulus. Gov. Eric Holcomb’s office is still determining how GEER funding will be distributed, according to Press Secretary Rachel Hoffmeyer.

“The guidance conflicts with the law,” Baker wrote in an email Wednesday to WDRB News regarding ESSER funding. “The formula provided through the guidance is one of concern and one with which we clearly disagree.”

KDE will follow federal guidance in distributing shares of both ESSER and GEER dollars to private schools, said David Millanti, assistant director in the Division of School and Program Improvement and ombudsman for equitable services under ESSA.

Kentucky received $193.2 million in ESSER funding and $43.8 million in GEER money, and Gov. Andy Beshear has set aside $30 million of the latter to improve digital access for students and expand districts’ emergency food services.

“There are some organizations that have proposed using that alternate calculation method, which was based on current Title I participation in lieu of (U.S. Department of Education) guidance,” Millanti said Thursday. “However, we determined that potentially there could be some funding equitability issues using that alternative calculation, so the decision was made to follow that guidance straight out of the box.”

Funding for private schools in Kentucky won’t be known until money begins flowing from school districts, he said. While the money will benefit private schools, public school districts will keep control of funding and anything purchased.

KDE recently distributed GEER application materials for school districts to send to private schools in their areas.

Basing CARES Act funding on Title I participation may leave out those private schools that don’t educate low-income students, he said.

Leisa Schulz, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Louisville, said all of the schools under her watch have been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Beshear “has really taken the approach that everyone has been impacted” by the ongoing public health emergency, she said.

“This really allows the federal funding to follow the students so that these funds have the ability to continue to serve their needs, and for us, that’s primarily going to be in the area of remote learning,” Schulz said.

Public school advocates are wary of sending additional resources to those in the private sector.

Brent McKim, president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association, called U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s guidance on equitable services for private schools under the CARES Act “problematic.”

He noted that the latest COVID-19 relief bill drafted by the House looks to negate that directive.

“We can’t blame the Kentucky Department of Education for following the federal guidance they’ve received,” McKim said. “I think the problem is with Betsy Devos at the national level. We know she’s a big advocate for privatizing public education, and it’s really inappropriate to use a crisis like this to advance her privatization agenda.”

Eric Kennedy, director of advocacy for the Kentucky School Boards Association, noted that the burden of running emergency food sites during COVID-19 school shutdowns mostly fell on public school districts.

Public school systems are also required to continue paying staff and contractors to receive federal funding under the CARES Act, a burden not shared by private schools, he said, noting that about 90% of students attend public schools in Kentucky.

“Sharing a larger and larger amount of even that funding with the private schools who by and large did not see the same kind of food service offerings at a financial loss since the beginning that public schools did, it’s a major concern,” Kennedy said.

“We are not against private schools,” he said. “They have had their own impacts, obviously, and we’re not against them even getting financial assistance from the government. But we still are not nearly where we need to be for recovery assistance for what public schools have already incurred up to this point.”

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