Low-income private school students could gain in new federal education law

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While Congress recently rejected plans to support school vouchers or allow federal Title I funding to follow students to any school they choose, there may still be a consolation prize in store for low-income private school students as lawmakers prepare to reconcile competing plans to overhaul a key K-12 education law.

Both the House bill passed earlier this month and the Senate version approved last week include provisions aimed at giving private schools more of a say in how school districts use federal funds for low-income students.

Since it was enacted in 1965, each iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act has set out to provide extra support to disadvantaged students, whether they attend public or private schools.

No Child Left Behind, the version currently on the books, requires school districts to make sure low-income private school students receive tutoring or other services that are “equitable in comparison” to what public-school students receive under Title I.

Some private school representatives say that hasn’t always worked in practice, and they sometimes have to jump through hoops to get support for their students who are eligible. The new federal legislation might help.

In a legislative alert sent out ahead of the Senate’s vote on its rewrite of the federal education law, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said the pending changes would be “the next important step towards restoring equity and strengthening the historical safeguards designed to insure the fair and equitable treatment of private school students and their teachers.”

The Senate legislation would give private schools a say over more issues they’re supposed to work out with districts, including what constitutes a “proportional” share of support for their students.

The House version would go further, giving private schools the ability to receive Title I services directly from state education agencies if their students do not get sufficient help from the local district.

James Herzog, who works on education policy for the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the law was always designed to provide academic assistance to students in poverty, regardless of the kind of school they attend. But getting that help isn’t always easy, and public school officials aren’t always familiar with the law’s requirements for private school students.

“An underlying principle was that the students in need are entitled to an equitable share of services and benefits regardless of whether they’re in public or private school,” he said.

Rabbi Moshe Matz, the executive director of Agudath Isreal of Florida, said the proposed changes might not have a major impact in districts like Miami-Dade, which already do a good job making sure private school students get Title I services.

“This will probably allow for the private school community to have greater voice, but I don’t think this is a revolutionary change,” he said.

A version of Title I “portability,” a change sought by some school choice advocates, is still in play, but it would only apply to public schools. It remains to be seen whether it will survive when the House plan is reconciled with the version that passed the Senate.