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School districts get two weeks to apply for federal aid

Part of their plans must include details on how they’ll share with private schools.

Florida’s schools are in line to receive more than $700 million in federal CARES Act money to help them recover from COVID-19.

The money already has been approved. They have until the end of June to tell the state how they intend to use the revenue.

And part of their plan must include steps to provide “equitable services” to private schools within their boundaries.

The idea of sending cash intended to help public schools serving large numbers of low-income children to private schools, regardless of students’ financial needs, has rubbed leaders in many states the wrong way. And not only in those led by Democrats.

Indiana, for instance, is among a handful of states that have announced an intention to ignore U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ guidance that all private schools should benefit from the act. Officials in Indiana suggested that DeVos’ stance contradicted the clear language that Congress had approved.

That would provide assistance to needy private school students, and not simply have money follow the child, as DeVos has instructed.

Florida, by contrast, has told districts that they are to follow the U.S. department’s directive. During a Friday webinar on the CARES Act for district budget officials, state assistant deputy commissioner Miki Presley noted having received several inquiries about the private school funds.

“We would point you to the federal guidance on the topic,” Presley said. “That will answer many of the questions that have been submitted.”

Explanations about how districts expect to provide a share to the private schools are but one piece of the detailed submissions due to the state by June 30.

They also must have send information about how they will assess student learning gaps and how they will accelerate them forward, how they will ensure safety and health of staff and students, and what they will do to have instructional continuity, among other things. Their budget must outline exactly how they intend to spend the money.

The main Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund runs into some fairly large figures. Overall, it totals $770 million, of which 90 percent goes directly to districts through a formula after they complete the documentation.

In the Tampa Bay region, Hillsborough County schools would get the biggest cut, around $54 million. Pinellas County would receive about $23 million and Pasco County about $14 million.

The governor also received $173.5 million to use for education. Of that, he has announced that $64 million will go toward a summer recovery program.

It will primarily target reading instruction in elementary schools. Transportation and meals must be provided during the initiative, which is to run at least 80 hours over four to six weeks.

Again, districts face a June 30 deadline to request a share. They may receive funding after that date, however, Presley said, the applications will be considered as they arrive.

These plans must include details such as how schools will focus their programs on the students with the highest needs, and how they will bring the most effective teachers into the program.

They also must describe how they will offer the “equitable services” to private schools.

Florida’s intention to follow the U.S. education department’s expectations in this area come as little surprise to many who watch the state’s education system.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has been a vocal proponent of using state money to help children attend private schools, and signed into law a voucher program a year ago.

He also included $30 million from his CARES Act fund to ensure students can continue to receive private school scholarships, and another $15 million to shore up struggling private schools.

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