As negotiations over the next round of COVID-19 relief remained stalled on Capitol Hill, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Thursday that she’s hopeful the final package will include funding for two programs that would provide public funds and tax credits to allow families to send their children to private schools.
Those items were included in the most recent GOP bill, which failed to advance in the Senate last week.
Democrats have criticized DeVos’s efforts to direct new and existing relief funds to private school students. They’ve pushed instead for more funding to shore up the budgets of struggling state and local governments. School administrators have said cuts at the state and local level could lead to teacher layoffs and elimination of educational programs.
Even as some members of Congress warned that a bipartisan compromise is not likely before the November presidential election, DeVos said she’s hopeful the school choice elements will remain in the final package.
As some schools struggle to provide adequate remote learning, parents have been open to alternatives, DeVos said, speaking during a virtual appearance at the Reagan Institute Summit on Education. She hopes that experience will make the public more receptive to policies like tax-credits to cover the cost of private school tuition, now and in the future.
“We know that, more than ever before, parents are aware of their children’s educational experience,” DeVos said. “I think there’s an awakening to this notion that we can’t have a one-size-fits-all approach. More and more parents, I believe, are going to insist they have the opportunity to choose what’s right for their children.”
The most recent GOP proposal includes $105 billion for education. It would provide federal tax credits totaling up to $5 billion a year over the next two years for contributions to scholarships families could use to send their children to private schools or to purchase educational materials and services. It would authorize “emergency education freedom grants,” state-administered scholarships families could use for private school tuition or other services if their children’s education is interrupted by the pandemic. And the bill would allow families to use funds from tax-advantaged 529 savings plans, typically used to cover college or private school tuition, to pay for home-schooling expenses.
“The biggest thing standing in the way, frankly, are the teachers’ unions that have really dug in their heels and continued to insist that members of a certain party toe the line and continue the status quo,” DeVos said.
National teachers unions have pushed for the Senate to pass the HEROES Act, a bill approved by the Democratically controlled House in May. The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions would create a $90 billion “state fiscal stabilization fund” for the U.S. Department of Education to support K-12 and higher education. About 65 percent of that fund—or roughly $58 billion—would go through states to local school districts. The bill would also provide $1 billion in aid to state and local governments.
Teachers unions have also criticized DeVos for efforts to channel relief funds to private schools, including througha spending rule she recently retracted after it was struck down by a federal judge.
After DeVos criticized unions, school systems, and Democrats Thursday, one of her predecessors slammed the federal response to the pandemic.
Former Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who served under President Barack Obama, said school systems are “doing heroic work at the local level” by working to feed children and meet their needs during a national crisis. He said a lack of national direction and support had made the problem worse.
“The absence of leadership at the federal level has been devastating,” Duncan said. “It has cost thousands of thousands of lives and harmed children’s education.”
Photo: U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP)