DeVos eyes redirecting education funds, faces immediate pushback

DeVos doesn't want to cut funds for schools; she wants to move funds for schools. We're apparently supposed to believe that's different. (It's not.)
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks about the coronavirus at the White House on March 27, 2020.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks about the coronavirus at the White House on March 27, 2020.Alex Brandon / AP file
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By Steve Benen

If schools are going to open safely anytime soon, there's an extraordinary amount of work to be done. As the New York Times reported, administrators are "already struggling to cover the head-spinning logistical and financial challenges of retrofitting buildings, adding staff members and protective gear, and providing students with the academic and emotional support" they'll need.

Congress approved $13.5 billion in emergency aid for K-12 schools, but many educators, the Times added, "estimate that schools will need many times that, and with many local and state budgets already depleted by the economic impact of the coronavirus, it is unclear where it will come from."

It's against this backdrop that the White House is threatening to cut funding for schools that resist Donald Trump's demands.

The push began in earnest on Tuesday, when Education Secretary Betsy DeVos -- a longtime critic of public schools -- said she was "very seriously" considering withholding federal resources from schools that balked at re-opening during a pandemic. A day later, the president echoed the threat on Twitter. This morning, Trump did so again, adding, with his own idiosyncratic approach to capitalization, "Schools must be open in the Fall. If not open, why would the Federal Government give Funding? It won’t!!!"

Among the nagging details is how, exactly, the Republican administration intended to withhold federal support for struggling schools during a public-health crisis. Yesterday, as Reuters reported, DeVos shed additional light on the plan.

The Trump administration could allow families to use federal education funding elsewhere if the local public school does not open during the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. education secretary said on Thursday as the Trump administration seeks to pressure states and cities to fully resume in-person classes.

“If schools aren’t going to reopen," she told Fox News, "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.”

Ah, I see. DeVos doesn't intend to pull funds from public schools during a public-health crisis; she intends to move funds from public schools during a public-health crisis. It is, we're supposed to believe, a more palatable approach.

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany voiced support for the same plan yesterday.

There's no shortage of problems with such a gambit, but let's highlight some of the more obvious ones. For one thing, schools need more resources, not fewer, as should be obvious to the White House and the Department of Education.

For another, if a community is facing a public-health crisis from a deadly pandemic, I'm not sure why DeVos assumes private schools would care less about safety than nearby public institutions.

But let's not brush past the bigger picture: DeVos is an ardent advocate of privatizing education through vouchers. In effect, the Education secretary envisions a model in which the government provides parents with taxpayer-funded coupons they would take to religious and other private institutions, steering kids away from public schools.

It's an unpopular and ineffective approach to education, but DeVos appears to believe the pandemic offers the Trump administration an opportunity to pursue this larger goal.

House and Senate Democrats weren't shy yesterday in condemning the Republicans' plan, and if the White House were to pursue it in earnest, there would likely be plenty of lawsuits -- which would take a while to resolve. Watch this space.