DeVos advances plan to direct coronavirus funds to private schools

DeVos intends to require school districts to divert funds to private schools, even if that means benefiting high-income students who don't need the help.
Betsy DeVos
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos listens during a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House on July 16, 2019.Alex Brandon / AP file

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos hasn't made much of an effort to hide her disregard for American public education. On the contrary, as we've discussed, DeVos has long been an enthusiastic proponent of school vouchers, which would effectively privatize the nation's K-12 system through coupons families would take to religious and other private institutions.

The Republican cabinet secretary isn't just a passive advocate of directing public funds away from public schools. The New York Times reported two weeks ago that DeVos hoped to exploit the $2 trillion coronavirus aid package to "throw a lifeline" to the private schools she's long championed, despite the fact that the law intended those funds to primarily benefit public schools and colleges.

The coverage sparked some controversy, but the Times added yesterday that DeVos is moving forward with the gambit anyway, telling the Council of Chief State School Officers, which represents state education chiefs, she intends to require public school districts to divert federal rescue funds to private schools, even if that means benefiting high-income students who don't need the help.

A range of education officials say Ms. DeVos's guidance would divert millions of dollars from disadvantaged students and force districts starved of tax revenues during an economic crisis to support even the wealthiest private schools. The association representing the nation's schools superintendents told districts to ignore the guidance, and at least two states -- Indiana and Maine -- said they would.

An Associated Press report added that DeVos intends to formalize her policy as a federal rule "in the next few weeks," though it would then be subject to a public-comment period -- and possible litigation.

Others can speak to the court prospects with more authority than I can, but it's likely to matter that DeVos' plan appears to be at odds with existing federal Title I funding rules. From the NYT report:

Under federal education law, school districts are required to use funding intended for their poorest students to provide "equitable services," such as tutoring and transportation, for low-income students attending private schools in their districts. But Ms. DeVos maintains the coronavirus rescue law does not limit funding to only poor students, and her guidance would award private schools more services than the law would normally require.

In other words, DeVos wants school districts to start directing more public funds to subsidize private-school tuition in ways that would benefit schools with wealthier students.

House Democrats on Capitol Hill are among those pressing the Education secretary to change course, arguing that her guidance would "repurpose hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars intended for public school students to provide services for private school students, in contravention of both the plain reading of the statute and the intent of Congress."

Watch this space.