DeVos issues new rule ordering more coronavirus relief to private schools

Education Secretary Betsy DeVosElizabeth (Betsy) Dee DeVosSunday shows preview: Coronavirus poses questions about school safety; Trump commutes Roger Stone sentence Democrats seek to tie GOP candidates to Trump, DeVos DeVos urges school districts to 'think creatively' about reopening amid coronavirus MORE issued a new rule Thursday advancing a policy requiring public schools to share more coronavirus relief funds with private schools than federal law currently mandates.

The new rule orders school districts to allocate their aid for private institutions based on their total number of private school students. Public school officials argue that the funding should be shared based on the number of low-income students at local private schools, the basis of fund-sharing under other federal rules. 

The Education Department maintains that coronavirus-related relief funds are separate from federal aid and should be used to benefit students at all schools, regardless of guidelines in place for normal funds from the government. 

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“The CARES Act is a special, pandemic-related appropriation to benefit all American students, teachers, and families impacted by coronavirus,” DeVos said in a press release. “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.”

“In this new rule, we recognized that CARES Act programs are not Title I programs. 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,” she wrote.

The Education Department argues the new rule is necessary to help struggling private schools that have seen their revenue sources shrink during the pandemic. The agency claims that a boost in funding to private institutions will help them keep their doors open, preventing a potential flood of students to public schools if private ones are shuttered.

The department issued the rule through a process that has historically been used in emergencies and grants the policies the power of law.

DeVos has been vocal in her advocacy for private institutions, drawing criticism from Democrats and public teacher unions that she is using her perch as a way to expand private schools’ funding. Among other things, DeVos has tried to give tax credits for scholarships sending students to private schools.

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The rule issued Thursday largely reflects similar guidance issued earlier this year regarding disbursement of coronavirus funds to private institutions with one key difference — the new rule allows public schools to use the regular low-income formula if their own aid relief is solely dedicated to low-income students in the district.

The new rule also discourages wealthier schools from accepting support from the local districts, noting that funding should not go to “boarding and day schools with tuition and fees comparable to those charged by the most highly selective postsecondary institutions.” 

The new rule hinges on language in the $2.2 trillion CARES Act passed earlier this year saying that public schools should allocate funds for private institutions “in the same manner as” they do under Title I, a funding program for low-income schools.

Democrats and public school officials have said the legislation clearly indicates that the same low-income formula that is normally used should apply to the coronavirus relief, disputing the Education Department’s interpretation of the law. 

“Republicans and Democrats at all levels of government agree that the Department’s interpretation of the CARES Act’s equitable services requirement violates both the letter and spirit of the law,” Rep. Bobby ScottRobert (Bobby) Cortez ScottHouse chairman asks CDC director to testify on reopening schools during pandemic House chairman blasts Trump's push to reopen schools as 'dangerous' Biden-Sanders 'unity task force' rolls out platform recommendations MORE (D-Va.), chairman of the House Education Committee, said in a statement. “[T]he Department’s new rule still forces them to divert valuable resources intended for low-income students to serve private school students, regardless of wealth.”