Seizing opportunity, DeVos directs coronavirus funds to private schools

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is exploiting the $2 trillion coronavirus aid package to "throw a lifeline" to the private schools she's long championed.
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

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos hasn't made much of an effort to hide her disregard for American public education. On the contrary, 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 problem, at least from the Michigan Republican's perspective, is that Congress has limited DeVos' ability to funnel public tax dollars into private education. The New York Times reports, however, that the conservative Education secretary is exploiting 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 to direct those federal funds primarily for public schools and colleges.

Ms. DeVos has used $180 million of those dollars to encourage states to create "microgrants" that parents of elementary and secondary school students can use to pay for educational services, including private school tuition. She has directed school districts to share millions of dollars designated for low-income students with wealthy private schools. And she has nearly depleted the 2.5 percent of higher education funding, about $350 million, set aside for struggling colleges to bolster small colleges -- many of them private, religious or on the margins of higher education -- regardless of need.

In a statement, the Department of Education disputed the idea that DeVos had done anything wrong, adding that the cabinet secretary sees a "need to rethink education."

Or put another way, we've had a system in which public funds supported public schools, and DeVos prefers to "rethink" this model.

Because the CARES Act that passed in March offered cabinet agencies some flexibility, the House Democrats' new economic aid package, set to pass today, specifically ties DeVos' hands in this area.

That said, Republicans in the Senate and White House have no intention of even considering this legislation, and even if these provisions were to eventually become law, it wouldn't help the states already struggling with DeVos' recent directives.