The USDE Flunks a ‘Significance Test’

Can someone please explain what the policy makers at the U.S. Department of Education were thinking when they set the eligibility requirements for participation in the American Recovery Plan – Emergency Assistance to Non-Public Schools program? ARP-EANS is a federal emergency assistance program for which Congress appropriated $2.75 billion “…to provide services or assistance to non-public schools that enroll a significant percentage of students from low-income families” and which are most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

When the American Recovery Plan was enacted, lawmakers failed to specify what constitutes a “significant percentage of students from low-income families,” leaving that determination to the U.S. Department of Education (ED), the federal agency tasked with enforcement of ARP-EANS. After inviting public comment on the matter, ED established 40 percent as the default minimum percentage of low-income students a private school must enroll in order to become eligible for participation in the program. States were afforded the opportunity to propose alternate percentages in their respective ARP-EANS applications, but only those honing to ED’s 40 percent low-income enrollment threshold were assured of gaining approval.

How on earth did ED attempt to justify a 40 percent figure? In its apparent desire to identify a non-arbitrary threshold level, here’s what the policy makers came up with:

“A 40-percent poverty percentage has long been recognized as a measure of significant poverty to operate a schoolwide program under title I of the ESEA. In the context of title I, 40-percent poverty is the statutory threshold for a title I school to use title I funds to upgrade the entire educational program of a school and serve all students. (See section 1114(a)(1)(A) of the ESEA). Given Congress’ recognition of 40 percent as significant within the context of title I, we believe it presents a reasonable threshold with respect to the ARP EANS program as well.”

Really? For one, schools in which low-income students account for less than 40 percent of total enrollment are not foreclosed from participation in Title I. For another Title I doesn’t permit private schools to operate schoolwide programs. And the actual recipients of Title I services need not be low-income students. Whereas the amount of Title I funding available to a school (whether public or private) is determined by the number of low-income students it enrolls, receipt of services is determined solely on the basis of academic need. If context is important, the Title I comparison is patently inapt.

One wonders whether it ever occurred to the decision makers at ED that private schools are subject to economic constraints with which public schools need not contend. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to figure out that a public school can accommodate a significantly greater number of low-income students because the existence of the public school is not contingent upon the payment of tuition (supplemented in most instances by significant fundraising). For a private school to sustain itself with an enrollment profile in which 40 percent of its student body hail from low-income households, the school must either be remarkably well resourced (in much the same manner as ivy league universities with massive endowments are able to offer free enrollment to low-income students), or engage in Herculean fundraising efforts.

Unless, of course, private school tuition is subsidized by the state, whether in the form of a school voucher program, education tax credits, or education savings accounts. In setting a default low-income student threshold of 40 percent, ED has favored private schools located in states that have adopted school choice programs. Perhaps that is why Florida, a state with an education savings account program, two school voucher programs, and two tax-credit scholarship programs, each of which supports enrollment in private schools, was able to accept the 40 percent threshold without supplicating for a reduced, alternate figure.

California, a state in which no comparable subsidization exists, has requested an alternate low-income student threshold of 20 percent. That figure wasn’t just pulled out of a hat. It was the aggregated average low-income student enrollment percentage among schools that qualified for participation in the Emergency Assistance to Non-Public Schools program enacted as part of the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021 (the predecessor to ARP-EANS). Even if the feds approve California’s requested 20 percent low-income threshold, fewer than 10 percent of the state’s private schools will likely be eligible to participate in ARP-EANS.

There’s likely to be one additional unanticipated outcome from ED’s 40 percent low-income threshold. In many states, ED’s attempt to limit participation in ARP-EANS to those private schools with the highest concentrations of low-income students will, ironically, end up channeling ARP-EANS benefits to non-qualifying schools.

Here’s the logic behind that pretzel logic. The fewer the number of private schools eligible for participation in ARP-EANS, the greater the per-school allocation of funds. Projecting from the “sample” of California private schools that participated in the CRSSA EANS program (which did not require participating schools to meet a low-income student enrollment threshold), the per-pupil allocation for qualifying ARP-EANS schools (with low-income student enrollment of at least 20 percent) would be in excess of $3,600. A school with an enrollment of 250 could thus anticipate an allocation of $720,000. With such substantial amounts of funding available, and given the limitations governing the permissible uses of those funds, most participating schools will be unable to utilize anywhere close to their full respective allocations.

The kicker is that all unspent ARP-EANS funds will revert to the Governor’s Education Emergency Relief fund (GEER). When that happens, governors will enjoy considerably greater flexibility with respect to both the permissible uses of funds and eligibility for receipt of benefits. In California and New York, private school leaders have received indications that any EANS funds reverting to control by their respective governors will continue to be used for the exclusive benefit of private schools. Thus, the more the U.S. Department of Education attempts to restrict ARP-EANS funding to private schools enrolling the highest percentages of low-income students, the greater the amount of funding that’s likely to become available to assist other than low-income students. Which strikes me as a significant paradox.

Ron Reynolds

Note: The commentary and views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessary represent those of the California Association of Private School Organizations, or its members.


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