The governors of Oklahoma and South Carolina have directed significant portions of their states’ federal education relief aid to fund private school scholarships.
Will more states follow? School choice advocates, who quickly praised the announcements, are encouraging them do so.
The decisions come as public schools around the country push for additional emergency relief funding, as they face the logistical challenges of reopening buildings with continued public health precautions following unprecedented mass closures due to the coronavirus pandemic. They also come amid ongoing debates about how much public funds should be used to support private schools facing financial challenges from a related economic downturn.
The funding in question comes from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief, or GEER funds, created through the CARES Act relief package that became law in March - “CARES” stands for Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. While much of the education aid provided through the CARES Act is directed to school districts, the law gives governors broader discretion in determining how to use GEER funds, which total about $3 billion.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, announced plans on Monday to direct $32 million of his state’s $48 million in GEER funds to a “Safe Access to Flexible Education” voucher program. The program will provide grants of up to $6,500 to about 5,000 students in families with household incomes at less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level to enroll in private schools. The state’s website says the program is modeled after private school choice programs in Florida and Arizona.
McMaster had previously directed some GEER funds to historically Black colleges and universities in the state.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican, announced Friday plans to use $10 million of his state’s $39.9 million in GEER funds for scholarships to help private school students “whose continued attendance is threatened by the financial fallout of COVID-19.” He also announced an $8 million “Bridge the Gap Digital Wallet” program to provide grants to families to buy “curriculum content, tutoring services and/or technology,” and a $12 million online learning initiative for schools.
“We have great private schools in Oklahoma that serve homeless children and children living in poverty,” Stitt said in a statement. “Assisting those families will be our first priority and greatest focus, followed closely by helping families who have suffered severe financial hardship from COVID-19’s impact on employment and job opportunities.”
Stitt previously directed the remaining GEER funds to school districts for mental health supports, internet connectivity, and compensatory education services.
The two governors join Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, whose GEER spending plans call for a $15 million “private school stabilization” fund and up to $30 million to buoy the state’s existing private school choice programs. Florida received about $174 million in GEER funds.
The governors’ announcements won immediate praise from groups like the American Federation for Children, a pro-school choice group previously led by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
“The positive impact generated in the lives of those children will be felt for years and generations to come,” American Federation for Children President John Schilling said in a statement. “We hope more states will follow the governor’s lead in prioritizing the needs of all families and children.”
The announcements were also met with immediate criticism from teachers’ unions and education groups who say public schools need more assistance to reopen.
“The governor is using this crisis as a way to funnel emergency funds that our schools desperately need to new, unproven nonprofits and to private schools, which have zero academic accountability,” Oklahoma Education Association President Alicia Priest said in a statement. “Public schools serve 91% of students but are receiving 50% of the emergency funding.”
School choice advocates have said many private schools are facing an existential threat due to declining enrollment and financial support. If private schools fail, that will cause new students to enroll the public school system, further straining resources, they’ve argued.
The Trump administration has backed federal tax credits to support private school scholarships in a future virus relief bill.
Private schools were also eligible for small business aid through the Paycheck Protection Program, also created by the CARES Act.
DeVos sparked controversy when she pushed for public school districts to direct a relatively large share of their relief funds to private school students. She faces a multi-state lawsuit over her interim final rule about the issue.
Photo: Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt speaks during a news conference July 9. --Sue Ogrocki/AP