Top Dem calls on DeVos to stop funding private schools with COVID-19 relief money

    Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visits Detroit Edison Public School Academy, Sept. 20, 2019 | Allison Donahue

    U.S. House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott (D-Va.) is calling on Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to abandon her plan to divert emergency education funding toward private school vouchers.

    The federal support was intended to provide COVID-19 relief for public schools in states that were most affected by the disease.

    DeVos, a Michigan native and school choice champion, used $180 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act to implement the Rethink K12 Education Models Grant, which encourages states to propose “microgrant” programs to reroute resources from public schools to private and religious schools.

    Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) speaks during a news conference discussing the College Affordability Act on October 15, 2019 in Washington, DC. | Zach Gibson/Getty Images

    Scott wrote in a letter to DeVos on May 8 that the program is “indistinguishable from a standard voucher scheme” and said it is the latest attempt “to promote privatization initiatives against both the wishes of the American people, and the intent of Congress.”

    The funds designated to the Department of Education from the CARES Act were intended to go to schools based on the proportion of low-income students, but DeVos directed schools to share the funding with private, affluent schools.

    “By directing states to allow these funds to be diverted to private fee-for-service educational providers, the Department has not faithfully adhered to Congressional intent to support the public school system that still educates the overwhelming majority of American students,” Scott wrote.

    Michigan was one of the hardest hit states by COVID-19, and is expected to see an unprecedented economic downturn during the next few years because of it.

    The per-pupil funding for K-12 students in Michigan, which sits at a minimum of $8,111 per district for this fiscal year, is expected to see a cut of about $650 per student.

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    In the letter, Scott points out that the department’s methodology to determine the highest burden due to COVID-19 does not accurately determine which states are most impacted by the pandemic.

    To prioritize CARES Act fund distribution, the Department developed a formula to identify the states with the highest coronavirus burden, but only 40% of this formula is related to the “highest coronavirus burden.”

    The other 60% of the formula is split between the “quality of project services and project plan” and “quality of the management plan and adequacy of resources.”

    Scott notes half of the department’s calculation of “highest coronavirus burden” relies on a formula that gives preference to rural states and states with existing voucher systems over the states with the most coronavirus cases and deaths.

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    Scott urged DeVos to rescind the proposal and to develop new metrics for grant programs that adhere to the intent of Congress.

    “Public schools face the threat of severely stressed state budgets due to the response to the pandemic. With prior economic downturns as a guide, it follows that local school district budgets and high-poverty school districts will be highly impacted and likely to disproportionately feel the brunt of deficient state budgets. 5 It is, therefore, imperative that federal funding go to states to help public schools support underserved students during this public health emergency,” Scott wrote.

    Allison Donahue
    Allison Donahue covers education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.