The Trump administration may push to include targeted funding to help schools re-open in the next federal coronavirus relief package, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said at a White House press conference Thursday.
Hours after he spoke, Democratic lawmakers and teachers unions slammed the White House’s reported plans to ask Congress to earmark money in that bill for scholarships that will allow families to send their children to private schools.
Although the first relief package—the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES Act—included funding for K-12 schools, education groups have said public schools need additional funds to deal with the logistics of re-opening their buildings while implementing continued precautions, offering varying estimates of how much aid is necessary.
While some Republicans have been skeptical of more spending, Senate Education Committee Chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., recently said it would take from $50 billion to $75 billion for K-12 schools, as well as colleges and universities, to reopen safely, lending his support to additional aid. And Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has said he will entertain discussions of further stimulus in after a two-week recess, said this week that his priorities are “kids, jobs, and health care.”
Mnuchin made his comments at a press conference on the economy after a White House reporter asked him if a full recovery is possible without returning children to school in-person.
“We’re working with schools and universities,” Mnuchin said. “I think in most cases, schools will be able to open safely. Some schools will need to spend money. One of the things we will look at in [the next relief bill] is if we need to give money to schools to properly equip their areas. ... We want to make sure that kids are safe and that if there is money schools need to spend to safely have people in classrooms, social distance, spread things out, change hours—these are all the things we are looking at.”
Private School Push
While some education groups expressed hope at the mention of more school funding, another story about the White House wish list for the next relief package sparked some harsh reactions from opponents of President Donald Trump’s education agenda.
Trump plans ask for a “one-time, emergency appropriation” to fund state scholarship grants that would allow students to attend private schools, McClatchy reported Thursday.
“The White House is seeking to have 10 percent of the amount that Congress approves for state and local educational agencies set aside for the grants,” the report said. “Trump will also seek approval of $5 billion in federal tax credits for businesses and individuals who donate to the scholarship programs.”
The $5 billion plan is one championed by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos that would provide federal tax credits to donors in states that opt into the Education Freedom Scholarship proposal. DeVos has made the proposal one of the centerpieces of her tenure, although it has had very little traction on Capitol Hill, and it has been criticized by some school choice supporters that typically align with the Trump administration.
“I have never heard a single, compelling persuasive reason as to why somebody is against Education Freedom Scholarships, opportunity scholarships, school choice, charter schools,” Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, told McClatchy. “And the reason is this: We’re trying to give these kids just another opportunity and provide their parents with another option.”
DeVos has sought to advance her school choice initiatives and support for private schools throughout the pandemic. She set aside some already allocated relief funds to create “microgrants”that would allow help families pay for education services or enrollment. She also made a controversial push for school districts to make coronavirus relief available to all local private school students.
Trump has also talked up school choice on the 2020 campaign trail. And this week, he praised a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that cleared the way for greater public support for students to attend private, religious schools.
Senate Education Committee ranking member Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., responded to the McClatchy report by accusing Trump and DeVos of “using this pandemic as an excuse to push an ideological privatization agenda that would divert much-needed funds away from our public schools that serve approximately 90 percent of students across the country.”
“Right now, our public education system is facing unprecedented challenges—public schools are scrambling to implement safety protocols with limited funds, millions of education jobs are on the line due to looming budget shortfalls, and families across the country are struggling with a chaotic, uncertain reality,” Murray said in a statement.
Photo: Austin Independent School District bus driver Antonio Fajardo Espinoza wipes down buses with antibacterial cleaner in March. The district installed WiFi on all school buses to act as hotspots for students without home internet access during coronavirus-related school closures. Around the country, state and district leaders are planning for when and how to reopen schools. --Julia Robinson for Education Week