POLITICS

Betsy DeVos Makes Moves To Quietly Prop Up Private Schools

Critics say the education secretary is using coronavirus stimulus money to push her school privatization agenda.
Secretary of Education Betsy Devos.
Secretary of Education Betsy Devos.

During the last week of April, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made two under-the-radar moves to help bolster private schools ― actions that some school choice proponents praise but that critics say come at the expense of public education. 

First, DeVos launched a $180 million competitive grant program that will give states access to money from the coronavirus stimulus bill ― known as the CARES Act ― if they apply with a plan to meet students’ needs amid widespread school closures. States can apply a plan in one of three categories, including one that would provide “microgrants” to families to pay for educational expenses, like tutoring and technology or, if they prefer, private school tuition. 

Secondly, DeVos released guidance on how another stream of education funding, also created by the stimulus bill, should be doled out among schools. While funding will be provided directly to public school districts mostly based on the proportion of poor students they serve, the guidance says that private schools ― even affluent ones with affluent students ― are also entitled to a slice of the pie. Public school groups say this new guidance takes critical funds away from public schools at a time when they need it the most.  

DeVos has staked her tenure on helping to expand choice programs that provide funding to families to help them pay for private schools. She has unsuccessfully pushed a federal choice program that would provide billions in tax credits to incentivize donations to private school scholarship programs. 

Her critics say that the two recent moves help prop up private schools at the expense of public ones. The last week in April represented the most “successful” one of DeVos’ tenure when it comes to enacting her agenda, said Sasha Pudelski, advocacy director of the School Superintendents Association.

“I can’t think of another week where she’s had two major victories like this, in terms of redirecting federal resources to private schools,” Pudelski said. 

But private school and school choice boosters insist the moves should not be seen as political, depicting them as ways to help a flailing sector and struggling families amid an unprecedented crisis. 

“Divisive, Ideologically Driven Policy Priorities” 

The microgrants program, according to Pudelski, is just another example of DeVos taking public dollars and trying to redirect it to families for potential use on private school tuition, bolstering such schools at the cost of public ones. Indeed, a handful of states already have education savings accounts (ESA) programs, which provide families with public dollars to spend on the education expenses of their choice.  

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) has described the microgrants as “vouchers” by another name. Voucher programs take public funds and funnel them to scholarships for private schools. She said the grant program, meant to provide necessary relief as schools transition to distance learning, promotes “divisive, ideologically driven policy priorities.”

In other words, DeVos is using the response to the coronavirus pandemic to push a notoriously polarizing concept, one that mostly serves to lift up religious schools ― as they’re the typical beneficiary of voucher funds, per a previous HuffPost investigation. 

“At best, the secretary is exploiting emergency relief legislation to insert secretarial priorities not outlined in this section of the CARES Act,” DeLauro said in a statement. “At worst, the secretary is deliberately misreading the law to conjure up purposes for these resources that were not provided.” 

School choice advocates have lauded the microgrants program as family-centered in a time of crisis.

“We should be thinking about what families need and meeting them where they are,” said Robert Enlow, president and CEO of EdChoice, a nonprofit school choice research and advocacy group. Instead of providing money directly to schools ― or “buildings” ― the microgrants will put the power in parents’ hands, to make the choices they believe best serve them, he said.  

HuffPost reached out to several states to ask about their plans to apply. New York and Arizona officials said they plan to apply for a federal education grant, but did not yet know in which category (the other two for K-12 grants involve statewide virtual learning programs and “new, field-initiated models for providing remote education not yet imagined”). A Texas official said the state would apply for the virtual learning component of the grant.

A spokesperson for the Indiana Department of Education ― a state that already has an expansive private school choice system ― said it would apply for a microgrant. 

Public Schools On The Brink

DeVos’ second move has the potential to devastate public school finances at a time when the systems are already anticipating draconian cuts, according to public school groups. One group representing big-city districts has estimated layoffs of up to 275,000 teachers without more relief.

Private schools, on the other hand, which only educate about 10% of the nation’s kids, say the funding provides a lifeline at a time when their finances are flailing, as well.

Last Friday, DeVos released guidance regarding the distribution of $13.5 billion in CARES Act education relief. The amount of money school districts receive from this pot is mostly determined through an established Title I formula, which under the nation’s education law gives more federal money to areas serving high proportions of low-income students. 

Typically, in a provision of the law called “equitable services,” private school programs are also entitled to a portion of Title I funds provided to their local public school districts, based on the number of poor students the private institutions serve. 

But under DeVos’ new guidance, private school programs are allowed to take CARES money based on how many students they serve ― not just how many of their students are in poverty. Meanwhile, the public districts that will be providing dollars for these private school services are still only allotted the federal funds based on their numbers of low-income kids. 

Groups representing public schools say this violates the intent of the law and is inconsistent with precedent. Indeed, the CARES Act says that services to students in private schools should be provided aid “in the same manner” as federal education law details. The groups are calling on the guidance to be revised, anticipating public funds getting funneled into affluent buildings serving groups of privileged students. 

“Absent these edits, the CARES Act equitable services guidance is inequitable and creates an environment where wealthy children in private schools are counted … at the direct expense of low-income children remaining in public schools,” said a letter sent to DeVos on Tuesday from the School Superintendents Association and the two national teacher unions. 

Another letter from the Council of Chief State School Officers to DeVos noted that in one Louisiana parish, “at least 77% of its CARES formula allocation would be directed to non-public schools in the area.”

The Department of Education pushed back on this complaint, noting that “Congress directed the department to make sure all students are able to be served through the CARES Act,” according to spokesperson Angela Morabito. Only providing money for low-income private school students, she said, would place private school teachers and students at an unfair disadvantage.

Private Schools Need A Bailout, Too

At least one group representing private schools said it doesn’t foresee them taking advantage of the new access to funds. 

Myra McGovern, vice president of media for the National Association of Independent Schools, says few of the 1,600 schools her organization works with currently take advantage of Title I money, for fear doing so could infringe on their autonomy. She’s unsure if this could change as the coronavirus crisis continues to worsen. 

But some private school groups say that they’re also anticipating devastating losses, that the CARES Act is not a Title I program and necessitates a different distribution of funds, and that they, too, need all the help they can get.  

“Every kid in public school and private schools is affected [by this crisis], it’s not dependent upon whether they are poor,” said Sister Dale McDonald, director of public policy for the National Catholic Education Association. “Everybody is at risk during this time frame, trying to learn under really trying circumstances.” 

McDonald said Catholic schools are hemorrhaging money ― that families are no longer able to pay tuition, that churches haven’t been able to take up collections to help support the schools, that institutions have had to cancel their springtime fundraisers.  

She’s already heard from 100 schools that do not believe they’re going to be able to reopen.

“Every school deserves better,” she said.


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