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Montana private schools will get more stimulus money. How much is unclear.

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President Donald Trump listens as Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks during a roundtable discussion on the Federal Commission on School Safety report, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Tuesday, Dec. 18, in Washington, D.C.

Montana private schools will get a larger slice of federal stimulus money than previously thought, with new guidance from the U.S. Department of Education. 

The overall $41.2 million pot of money stays the same, but some money initially headed to public schools will shift toward private schools. State and local school officials aren't sure exactly how much it will be, but it could exceed $1 million statewide. 

“It looks like this is going to be a bigger impact than we initially calculated,” said Billings Public Schools CFO Craig Van Nice. 

The shift is rooted in an interpretation of a rule affecting private schools that provide "equitable services" and participate in a federal program that helps fund those services. Stimulus money to public schools was distributed using a formula that awards money based on the proportion of student from low-income families. Money for schools is supposed to help COVID-19 pandemic related costs like providing services for students who fall behind during remote learning, or replacing or upgrading technology infrastructure. 

Initially, the equitable services provision for private schools focused on the same low-income student group, but guidance from Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos expanded that to include all private school enrollment — a disproportionately larger metric than the low-income measure for public schools. 

The move made waves in education policy spheres; several public schools advocates criticized it as an unfair funding shift toward private schools. A national teachers union and national superintendents association asked school districts to ignore the guidance. 

Kirk Miller, who leads School Administrators of Montana and estimates that $1.3 million could shift to private schools, said that the move represents “privatization with public funds."

Implementation of the guidance depends on several factors, some of which are so far unclear. 

Billings originally estimated that it would send about $100,000 of the $3.2 million it should receive from a round of stimulus funding to private schools under the early rule. How much that figure could increase depends on how many of the roughly 1,600 private school students in the county reside within School District 2 boundaries. County officials count non-public enrollment, but don't sort those students by public school boundaries. 

There's also a chance that private schools choose not to participate in equitable services programs and wouldn't get the money, Office of Public Instruction spokesman Dylan Klapmeier said. County officials are again checking in with schools about participating. 

That's left OPI unable to calculate how much money would shift toward private schools in the state, he said. Guidance issued Thursday from Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen said that the state will follow the federal guidance about the shift, but notes that if federal guidance changes, the state will change its calculations. 

Miller's projections already account for schools that have opted into equitable services programs, he said, and unless a school's status changes, it would be in line for the money. He acknowledged that schools already in the programs could drop out, or more could join, affecting the $1.3 million estimate. 

Friday, the New York Times reported that $1.5 million in Montana would shift toward private schools, citing "Montana school officials."

That figure didn't come from OPI, Klapmeier said. Miller said that it likely represented an accounting of how much money would be appropriated under the new guidance without factoring in cash already heading to private schools under the original formula. 


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