This week, President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced their plans to, as Politico reported, “use the next coronavirus relief bill to prod states into reopening schools and push school choice policies.” As DeVos explained on Fox News, “If schools aren't going to reopen, we're not suggesting pulling funding from education but instead allowing families ... [to] take that money and figure out where their kids can get educated if their schools are going to refuse to open.”
As much as it’s no secret that DeVos’ number one priority as secretary of education has been to find ways to funnel taxpayer dollars to education at private, religious schools through private school voucher schemes, it is still shocking that anyone would so boldly exploit a pandemic to reach that goal.
DeVos and Trump started the week by holding a series of White House events designed to pressure public schools to reopen their buildings in the fall. Not only does DeVos want to dangerously force public schools to reopen before they are ready, but she is also using this opportunity to push forward a new voucher proposal. In order to pressure public schools to reopen, DeVos would redirect funds from public schools that do not fully reopen to give to families to use for education for their kids outside of public schools. In other words, her plan would create a private school voucher program with funds that should be supporting our public schools instead.
This is not DeVos’ first attempt to exploit the pandemic for her private school voucher agenda. When Congress passed its first COVID-19 stimulus package, the CARES Act, in March, it provided additional funding to states to support K-12 education. Yet, in direct contradiction of Congress’s intent, DeVos manipulated the CARES Act to redirect emergency funds to private schools. She first went after a fund that was intended to provide grants to states with the “highest coronavirus burden” to create a private school voucher program that provides students with “microgrants” vouchers to use on educational expenses, including tuition for private education.
DeVos also intentionally misinterpreted a provision in the CARES Act that was meant to provide funding for certain services in private schools based on the number of low-income students in order to provide increased funding for private schools, even if those schools do not educate a single low-income student. She has incorporated this interpretation into non-binding guidance from the Department of Education, and after receiving intense backlash, she has doubled down and issued an interim final rule to give her erroneous interpretation the force of law. Recently, five states and the District of Columbia filed suit against the department, saying that the rule diverts millions of dollars from public schools most in need to fund private institutions.
In addition to feeling empowered by the ways in which she has already exploited the CARES Act, DeVos might also be feeling bolstered by the Supreme Court’s decision in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, which held that Montana’s voucher program must fund private religious schools if it funds secular private schools, and which could open the door to new and expanded taxpayer-funded private school voucher programs in states across the country. This decision was not only a blow to the separation of religion and government, it also is one that will harm our country’s students. If we want to support America’s children, we must fund our public schools, not siphon taxpayer dollars to private religious education.
During this challenging time, the federal government should focus on providing more resources to our public schools, which are best equipped to serve all students, including our most vulnerable children like students with disabilities. Private school voucher programs, in contrast, undermine our public schools by diverting desperately needed resources away from the public school system to fund the education of a few, select students in private, mostly religious schools. Private school vouchers do not provide students with better educational opportunities and also undermine students’ civil rights and perpetuate a scheme that was historically rooted in racist attempts to subvert desegregation orders in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. Unlike repeated assertions from Trump and others, vouchers are certainly not the remedy for the “civil rights issue of our time.”
As Congress continues to negotiate the next round of stimulus funding, we are urging legislators to reject DeVos’ proposal. Please take action and let your member of Congress know that public funds should fund public schools.