Government-Supported Religion

Betsy DeVos Is Using The Coronavirus Pandemic To Push School Vouchers

  Samantha Sokol

Since day one of the Trump administration, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has tried to funnel public money to private, religious schools through private school vouchers. We’ve seen Secretary DeVos’ proposal for nationwide federally-funded vouchers, her plan to expand an existing voucher program in Washington, D.C., her attempt at vouchers for military families, and even her decision to rebrand vouchers as  “education freedom scholarships” (Different name, same thing: They’re private school vouchers). Thus far, her attempts have failed. But DeVos finally had her lucky break: the coronavirus pandemic.

Back in March, Congress passed the CARES Act, which included $30.75 billion of emergency education relief to help public schools and colleges deal with the crisis. Secretary DeVos redirected hundreds of millions of these funds to her personal top priority: private schools. Contrary to Congress’s intent, DeVos has been using the pandemic as an excuse to redirect funds from public schools to private, religious schools.

First, DeVos used $180 million to create a “microgrant” program, which allows states to give parents money to pay for any education services that a private school or online company might offer, including private school tuition. DeVos is calling them “microgrants,” but again, these are private school vouchers by another name. These “microgrants” could funnel public education money that Congress intended to help public schools deal with the coronavirus crisis to private schools instead.

Second, DeVos released guidance instructing school districts to redirect millions of dollars intended for the most low-income students to wealthy private school students instead. Her guidance allows CARES Act funding to disproportionately go to private schools, while public schools with large populations of low-income students will get even less than expected. Here’s just one example: the Education Law Center of New Jersey estimates that Newark Public Schools, the state’s largest district and one of its poorest, will lose $800,000 of pandemic relief funding to private schools, including those attended by children from wealthy families.

Vouchers are a bad policy idea during the best of times, and during this pandemic, they’re even worse. Voucher programs don’t improve student achievement, lack appropriate oversight and accountability and, of course, violate religious freedom by forcing taxpayers to fund religious education at private schools. Public schools need public funds desperately right now. They must pay teachers and staff, provide technology and distance learning, support struggling students, and survive budget cuts. The last thing public schools need during a pandemic is DeVos’ unaccountable, unfair, and ineffective voucher agenda.

Fortunately, members of Congress are noticing DeVos’s schemes, and they’re working to curtail her ability to implement voucher programs with pandemic relief funds. For the next pandemic relief bill, the HEROES Act, the U.S. House of Representatives included provisions to ensure DeVos can no longer funnel public school relief funds to private schools through school vouchers or other programs.

It’s now the Senate’s turn to consider the HEROES Act and these provisions limiting private school vouchers. We need you to urge your senators to block DeVos’s voucher agenda by ensuring that no more pandemic recovery funds go to private school vouchers. Contact your senators now to ensure the Senate includes this key section in its version of the bill. Right now, our struggling public schools depend on it.


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