RALEIGH — The General Assembly passed several education bills related to helping schools and districts cope with the COVID-19 outbreak. At the same time, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has expanded CARES Act funds to private schools.
“We appreciate the General Assembly’s actions to ensure that our state’s educators and students have support to meet our schools’ critical needs during this pandemic,” State Superintendent Mark Johnson said in a statement. “This is a challenging time for our students, educators and parents, and these funds will help us focus our efforts to meet their needs.”
House Bill 1023 directs over $100 million in CARES Act relief funds towards multiple NCDPI programs, including school nutrition programs. The $75 million appropriated for those programs has been revised to include the Summer Food Service Program. If needed, the bill allows NCDPI to withhold up to $12 million from the transportation allotment for emergency school nutrition transportation services.
The bill also includes: $4 million for reduced-priced lunch co-pays for eligible students in the 2020-21 school year, $5 million grant program for DPI to provide access to services for exceptional children, $7 million to purchase personal protective equipment for public schools, and $18 million for the School Business Modernization project.
Senate Bill 113 is an omnibus bill that does provides exemption of certain school psychologists from North Carolina’s Psychology Board Licensure, while also setting up a School Psychologist Recruitment and Retention Pilot Program. In addition, the bill provides for a “reinvestment plan” whereby managed-care organizations partner with schools or districts to provide additional student mental health support.
The bill also modifies the 2020-2021 school calendar requirements, which grants more calendar flexibility. This will permit local boards to be able to alter any year-round calendars as needed.
The bill also clarifies the use of school nutrition federal relief funds and extends their period of use, changes the charter school report dates, designates the superintendent of public instruction as an approver of private activity bonds, revises the calculation of the school administrator intern stipend, and extends the grant term for the North Carolina Transforming Principal Preparation Program.
On the same day the two bills passed, DeVos announced issuance a rule to make CARES Act funding available to support students “no matter where they attend school.”
“The CARES Act is a special, pandemic-related appropriation to benefit all American students, teachers, and families impacted by coronavirus,” said DeVos. “There is nothing in the law Congress passed that would allow districts to discriminate against children and teachers based on private school attendance and employment.
According to the press release, this rule gives districts options for determining the amount of CARES Act funding for equitable services to private school students. Once the rule is officially published in the Federal Register, it will be effective immediately and open for public comment for 30 days.
“In this new rule, we recognized that CARES Act programs are not Title I programs,” DeVos said. “There is no reasonable explanation for debating the use of federal funding to serve both public and private K-12 students when federal funding, including CARES Act funding, flows to both public and private higher education institutions.
The COVID-19 outbreak has created significant strain on private schools that serve students from low- and middle-income communities in part due to dependence on fees or tuition from families, as well as donations from business and their surrounding communities. According to DeVos’s statement, more than 100 private schools have said they won’t be able to reopen due to the pandemic, and that “hundreds more are facing a similar fate.” These closures are leading to the reality that public schools may have to “absorb thousands of students transferring from private schools.”
Under the new rule, if a local education agency (LEA) chooses to use CARES Act funding for students in all its public schools, it still must calculate the funds for equitable services based on students enrolled in private schools in the district.
If an LEA chooses to use CARES Act funding only for students in its Title I schools, it can either calculate the funds for equitable services based on the total number of low-income students in Title I and participating private schools or calculate the funds using the LEA’s Title I, Part A share from the 2019-2020 school year. LEAs cannot divert state or local funds from its Title I schools because they receive CARES Act funds.