Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is pushing ahead with a policy that will steer tens of millions of dollars in federal coronavirus relief to private primary schools and secondary schools across the nation.
The policy has drawn backlash from Democrats and state education leaders who say it reroutes money from needy public schools to wealthier private ones. But in a recent letter to a group of state education chiefs, DeVos defended the policy and said she plans to formalize it as a federal rule “in the next few weeks.”
The dispute stems from more than $13 billion allocated for the nation's schools as part of a nearly $2 trillion aid package approved by Congress in March.
The legislation tells states to divide the funding among public schools based on the number and share of low-income students they teach. It also tells public schools to use a portion of the money to provide services, such as busing or tutoring, to students who attend local private schools. The stipulation is similar to an existing requirement for federal Title I funding, a separate program for low-income schools.
In the past, public schools have been told to reserve a portion of their Title I funding for local private school students, in proportion to the number of low-income students at nearby private schools. On April 30, however, DeVos issued new guidance telling public schools to divide the coronavirus aid based on the total number of students at local private schools, not just low-income ones.
The guidance was challenged by the Council of Chief State School Officers, which said it could “significantly harm the vulnerable students who were intended to benefit the most.” The group urged DeVos to clarify her guidance and align it with Title I funding rules, saying her formula would give an “inequitable amount of funding” to private schools.
In Louisiana, for example, private schools are estimated to get at least 267% more than they would using the Title I formula, the council wrote in a May 5 letter. In the state's Orleans Parish, at least 77% of its relief allotment would end up going to private schools.
Indiana's education officials said they're rejecting DeVos' guidance, arguing that, legally, it amounts to no more than a recommendation. Jennifer McCormick, the state's superintendent of public instruction, said on Twitter that she plans to distribute the virus funding “according to Congressional intent and a plain reading of the law."
“I will not play political agenda games with COVID relief funds. Our most at-risk students depend on this commitment,” McCormick wrote.
In her letter, DeVos said she understands schools’ “reflex to share as little as possible with students and teachers outside of their control,” but she added that private schools have also been “overwhelmed” by the pandemic, and some have closed permanently.
“These school closures are concentrated in low-income and middle-class communities,” DeVos said. “I would encourage educators everywhere to be as concerned about those students and teachers as they are with those in public schools.”
The Education Department declined to provide further comment.
Democrats in Congress blasted DeVos over the policy. In a May 20 letter to DeVos, they said her approach conflicts with language in the relief bill instructing schools to share funding “in the same manner" that they share Title I funding. The letter, led by Virginia Rep. Bobby Scott, chairman of the House education committee, said DeVos' guidance "chooses to ignore this explicit direction from Congress."
Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate's education committee, also questioned DeVos' approach.
“My sense was that the money should have been distributed in the same way we distribute Title I money. I think that's what most of Congress was expecting,” Alexander said after being questioned on the topic during a May 21 call with reporters. Still, he added, DeVos “may have the authority” to make the change.
In a May 22 response to the Council of Chief State School Officers, DeVos said her approach will stand. DeVos said the department will issue a federal rule on the topic, with input from the public. She added that the council “fundamentally misunderstands” the bill, arguing that the legislation borrows from Title I requirements but wasn't meant to function “exactly” the same.
If schools refuse to follow her guidelines, she said, they should hold the difference between the funding formulas in escrow, while providing at least some funding to private schools immediately.