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Federal judge backs giving COVID-19 relief to schools based on poverty, not population

Federal judge backs giving COVID-19 relief to schools based on poverty, not population

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A federal judge in California has blocked a rule that Wisconsin, eight other states and four big-city school districts said would unlawfully allow too much pandemic relief aid to be diverted from K-12 public schools to private ones.

Judge James Donato ruled late Wednesday that the federal Department of Education “went well beyond” its authority in trying to replace a funding formula mandated by Congress “with ones of its own choosing.” The decision came days after a different federal judge issued a similar injunction in a lawsuit filed by Washington state.

The decision could affect how more than $150 million Wisconsin received from the federal $2.2 trillion CARES Act relief package is distributed among public and private schools.

“This decision is a big win on the path to ensuring that our public schools receive all of the funding that Congress intended to provide to them for pandemic relief,” Wisconsin’s Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul said in a statement Thursday.

Across the nation

The ruling temporarily halted the U.S. government from implementing the rule in Wisconsin, California, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.; and school districts in New York City, Chicago, Cleveland and San Francisco.

Under the Department of Education rule, school districts are ordered to set aside a portion of their aid for private schools using a formula based on the total number of private school students in the district. The policy has been contested by public school officials who say the funding should be shared based on the number of low-income students at local private schools rather than their total enrollments.

That is how funding is shared with private schools under other federal rules that Congress referenced in the legislation that created the rescue aid. The rule provides an exception. Public schools can use the low-income formula if their own relief funding is used entirely on the district’s low-income students.

Amicus brief

The Wisconsin Council of Religious and Independent Schools and 37 other private school-related organizations nationwide joined an amicus brief in the case supporting the Department of Education’s position.

Sharon Schmeling, executive director of the council, said in an email an enrollment-based formula is “a very fair, simple and workable way to distribute the funds in a crisis.”

She said the poverty-based formula is a time-consuming and cumbersome process that could hold up funds.

“Congress made it clear all schoolchildren should be served by the CARES Act because all schools have been harmed by the virus,” Schmeling said. “Our schools have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on preparing for in-person and virtual classes and the much needed funds provided by Congress are on hold.”

Associated Press reporter David Eggert and State Journal reporter Logan Wroge contributed to this report.


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