A pandemic is no time to undermine public education
As public school systems across the nation struggle with the financial and logistical challenges associated with providing education during the COVID-19 pandemic, the White House and the U.S. Department of Education seem to be doing everything possible to undermine public education. President Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos are demanding that schools conduct in-person classes in the fall but have not provided clear and consistent guidance on how to gather in schools safely. And while already underfunded public schools struggle to provide adequate online education or safe in-person education in the face of pending budget cuts, Secretary DeVos has issued regulations that shift scarce federal education dollars to private schools. The pattern is well-established, troubling, and increasing as the nation wrestles with COVID-19. Congress can stop it.
Most recently, the Education Department released an interim, equitable services rule that allocates millions in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act relief funds to private schools at the expense of public schools. In issuing this rule, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos violated statutory language in the CARES Act, stipulating that the proportion of federal funds allocated to serving private school students be equal to the proportion of students from low-income families who attend private schools.
This is not the only example of the Department of Education taking advantage of the CARES Act to support private schools by siphoning public education dollars. In April, Secretary DeVos announced that one percent ($307.5 million) of the total appropriations for education in the CARES Act would be set aside for discretionary “microgrants” for families to use on virtual and private education programs, experimental remote education programs, and workforce and career training programs for students. These funds were originally intended to support states especially burdened by COVID-19. The Department has also provided governor guidance, allowing them to use a portion of the $3 billion allocated to them for educational purposes from the CARES Act to support school privatization efforts such as school vouchers.
The administration’s fiscal 2021 budget includes a request for $5 billion to fund Education Freedom Scholarships, which provides dollar-for-dollar tax credits for individuals who donate to select Scholarship Granting Organizations that fund private school scholarships. Education Freedom Scholarships have the potential to reduce the federal government’s annual tax revenue by $5 billion. Still, they will also reduce the funds schools would need to implement research-based school improvement efforts for students who remain in the public school system.
As if these injections of federal money into the nation’s private schools weren’t enough, the Trump administration has requested direct aid for private schools in the next stimulus package. That aid would come in the form of a one-time fund for state scholarship grants for students to attend private schools equivalent to 10 percent of the total allocation for state and local education agencies.
As Congress works to pass another federal COVID-19 relief package, we strongly urge them to remember the words of Horace Mann, “public education is the foundation of our community,” and deny the Trump Administration’s requests to fund private schools with federal relief dollars. Additionally, Secretary DeVos’ revised equitable services interim rule should be nullified to restore the long-standing equitable services policy originally in the CARES Act and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. In that vein, we also urge Congress to close the loopholes that have allowed Secretary DeVos to interpret intended uses for federal funding, thereby limiting her ability to create discretionary microgrant competitions and funding guidance that benefit private schools.
In light of the desperate need for public education support, we encourage Congress to fund K-12 education at least $370 billion. That is the minimum amount necessary to protect students in a pandemic time while providing the fundamental instruction needed to meet 21st-century demands. Right now, we are amid a pandemic which is wreaking havoc with our lives and our education system; this is no time to undermine public education.
Fred Jones is the director of government and Public Policy for the Southern Education Foundation (SEF). He advocates for the advancement of SEF’s public policy priorities at the local, state, and federal levels.