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DeVos Answers the Wrong Bell

Terry H. Schwadron

July 1, 2020

Ask any parent — or grandparent — for their top concern, and the answer will revolve around education and childcare in a time of pandemic.

Sure, there are the massive societal problems we’re all facing about how to re-open safely and keep our jobs and about how to explain what has led to such widespread protests for racial and social justice. But, in the end, the uncertainty hanging in the air over whether, how and when schools will re-open in any recognizable way is a sure bet.

In the meantime, we’re hearing all kinds of reports bouncing between the creative and the burden of trying to work with children in the house. Teachers never trained to be online instructors are winging it to address Zoom instruction, and children of all ages run hot and cold about how much attention to pay to a screen.

So, you’d think that the Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos would be all over the obvious questions about how to adjust physical classrooms for the safest experience for eventually returning students, or how to provide substantial help to teachers nationwide with tips for using technology, or how to advise parents on home teaching. She might be pressing for child-care issues to hold a higher place in the Donald Trump administration. She might even weigh in about waiving educational tests in this virus period.

But no, DeVos has come up with the answer to questions no one was asking — issuing a new rule last week advancing a policy requiring public schools to share more coronavirus relief funds with private schools than federal law currently mandates.

Right. She’s found a way to make coronavirus about further crushing public schools and taking public monies to give to private and parochial schools.

Parochial School Robin Hood

Taking public school money and giving it to private schools has been DeVos’ goal since taking the job. They call it increasing school choice, and paint it with colors of alteratives to bad public schools. But move the flowery language away and you have an effort to attack public education — and teacher unions.

Towards that end, she now can claim the support of the U.S. Supreme Court which ruled yesterday 5–4 to require that a Montana scholarship program financed by donations receiving public tax credits must extend to students of private, religious schools in a decision that invites yet more court challenges.

Specifically, the new rule orders school districts to allocate aid under the CARES coronavirus bill for private institutions based on their total number of private school students rather than the number of low-income students in those schools — the standing rule under every other fund-sharing bill.

She says that coronavirus-related relief funds are separate from federal aid and should be used to benefit students at all schools, regardless of normal guidelines. Indeed, she described the normal methodology as “discriminating” against, say, religious schools.

“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.

As I said, this answers a question no one was asking publicly.

The Education Department argues the new rule is necessary to help struggling private schools that have seen revenue losses during the pandemic, and adds that without what essentially is a bailout to private schools, there could be a flood of students in public schools. Um, not likely.

Moreover, she did it in a way that avoids Congressional involvement.

A Campaign of Longstanding

DeVos has been vocal in her advocacy for private institutions, drawing criticism from Democrats and public teacher unions. So far as I can research, she has been silent about child care, just as she basically has been quiet about food services, special services to the disabled, transportation and other non-classroom but real problems facing education.

She and the White House have sought to give $5 billion in tax credits to allow expansion of school voucher programs nationally. As the pandemic got going, court challenges of state programs that defray tuition payments to private schools — another source of public money being shunted to pay for private and parochial schools — at a time when public education is under siege itself. Filing the lawsuit was the Southern Poverty Law Center, the ACLU and the Education Law Center.

As of 2019, there were 29 such voucher programs in 18 states and Washington D.C. (the only one actually authorized by the Congress) and Puerto Rico involving hundreds of thousands of students.

Even DeVos acknowledged in the new rule that wealthier schools should not accept 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 language in the $2.2 trillion CARES Act said 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.

Maybe DeVos should take a home-based reading comprehension course.


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