Education Law Center is urging New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy to firmly reject a non-binding directive from U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to set aside federal emergency relief funds under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act for all private school students, even the most wealthy.
In a May 11 letter to Governor Murphy, ELC explains that Secretary DeVos’ guidance to New Jersey and other states to allocate CARES Act funds to all private school students, without regard for income level, is based on a patent misreading of the express terms of the CARES Act and the federal Title I statute, which governs the distribution of CARES Act funding to local school districts. ELC further explains that Secretary DeVos’ flawed legal interpretation would also significantly diminish the resources available to New Jersey school districts to provide effective and equitable remote learning opportunities while students are sheltering at home to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“This erroneous guidance lays bare Secretary DeVos’ personal agenda for reducing federal emergency CARES Act funds to public schools and redirecting as much of that funding as possible to private schools,” said David Sciarra, ELC Executive Director. “By advising that even the wealthiest students in the most expensive private schools should receive services paid for with CARES Act funds, the guidance would lead New Jersey and other states to divert millions of dollars critically needed by public school students, including access to continuing instruction while their schools are closed.”
Estimates based on 2017 census data show that New Jersey’s high poverty districts will be most impacted by following Secretary DeVos’ directive given the differences between the poverty rates of the district as a whole and those of private school students.
For example, in Jersey City, 12% of the district school-aged population attend private schools, while only 14% of those students are poor. Following DeVos’ directive would mean diverting nearly $1 million more of the CARES Act funds from Jersey City public school students, 30% of whom are poor.
Similarly, in Passaic City, an estimated 16% of students attend private schools, but only 10% of those students are poor. In Passaic public schools, 51% of students are poor. Using Secretary DeVos’ preferred approach would increase the amount of federal CARES Act funds reserved for private school students from $300,000 to $1.4 million.
ELC also underscores that rejecting Secretary DeVos’ directive is compelled by New Jersey’s constitutional obligation to “provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of free public schools” for all students. As the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed in the landmark Abbott v. Burke rulings, public school students have a fundamental right to an education that prepares them to be informed citizens and productive members of society and that right “must remain prominent, paramount and fully protected.”
Beyond New Jersey, ELC is calling on governors and education officials to decline Secretary DeVos’ legally improper directives and ensure maximum CARES Act funds to enable school districts across the country to bring an end to the digital divide.
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