The dispute over how much coronavirus aid private school students should receive intensified over Memorial Day weekend, following U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ announcement that she would soon propose a rule to “resolve” the issue.
In a May 22 letter to a group representing state education leaders, DeVos announced that the U.S. Department of Education would issue a proposed rule on the subject in the next few weeks, and that her department would invite public comments on the issue. And she reiterated her position that a relief package passed by Congress in March was designed by lawmakers to benefit all private school students within local school district boundaries, not just certain private school students. She said she hoped this process would settle the disagreement before the start of the next school year.
But DeVos also seemed intent on taking her state counterparts down a peg. In her letter, she took direct aim at the state leaders’ motives as well as their understanding of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Yet in a response to DeVos the same day, the state chiefs’ group’s executive director declined to back down.
The Education Department issued nonbinding guidance outlining its view roughly a month ago, and private school advocates have hailed the directive, which stressed that all students are struggling during the pandemic. But state and local leaders have sharply and repeatedly criticized it. They’ve argued that congressional intent was to have the aid provide “equitable services” to disadvantaged and at-risk private school students—the students typically eligible for those services under the main K-12 law—not private school students in general.
Advocates have also accused DeVos of exploiting the pandemic and CARES aid to shore up private schools fearful that they could be forced to close permanently, at the expense of traditional public schools.
The fight over roughly $13 billion in federal COVID-19 aid revives long-running and bitter disputes over DeVos’ stance on traditional public schools, and whether she is intent on redirecting resources and other benefits to private schools and other educational models.
At least two states have said recently they plan to ignore the late April guidance, and at least one state—Tennessee—has said it will follow the directive. However, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee, said last week that he differs from DeVos about equitable services under the CARES Act. Congress has the power to overturn DeVos’ guidance, although Alexander did not say he supported a move to do either of those things. Federal lawmakers can also nullify regulations from agencies like the Education Department.
Equitable services, which districts provide through things like tutoring and technology licenses, benefit students and don’t involve cash transfers to private schools. However, private schools (which can decline to participate in equitable services for its students) could benefit tremendously during difficult economic times if all their students became eligible for those services during the pandemic and its aftermath.
Before the rule is finalized, DeVos says that states or districts that don’t plan to follow the guidance on equitable services should put CARES money in escrow. That escrow money, she said, should equal the difference between funding for equitable services for the smaller group of private school students typically eligible for those services, and the broader group of such students DeVos says is eligible for CARES aid. In that way, she said, at least some students would begin receiving equitable services “to which they are entitled.”
But that advice might not sit well with state and local school leaders making plans now for how to use emergency CARES relief.
‘Share as Little as Possible’
In her May 22 letter to the Council of Chief State School Officers that was her response to the group’s previous criticism of the guidance, DeVos said the new rule would be released “in the next few weeks” and that her department would invite public comment on it.
In her letter, DeVos said that when lawmakers said that equitable services should be provided “in the same manner” as under the Every Student Succeeds Act—the main federal K-12 law—Congress made it plain that since the CARES Act is designed to benefit all students, not just disadvantaged and at-risk children, then eligibility for equitable services is also meant to be universal.
“Therefore, to make services equitable in comparison to public school students, it follows that the same principles must apply in providing equitable services to all non-public school students and teachers,” she wrote.
But DeVos not only outlined her agency’s interpretation of the law. She also took aim at what she called state K-12 leaders’ “reflex to share as little as possible with students and teachers outside of their control.”
DeVos returned to the theme of reflexes later in the letter, stating, “Although I understand their reflex to share as little as possible with students and teachers outside of their control, I would remind states and LEAs [districts] that their non-public school peers have also been overwhelmed by COVID-19. All students and teachers have had their learning disrupted.”
(Not all public school districts appear to be eligible for the $13 billion pot of CARES aid for school districts, as the department itself stated earlier this month.)
In a statement responding to DeVos’ May 22 letter, CCSSO Executive Director Carissa Moffat Miller repeated the group’s position that DeVos’ guidance on COVID-19 last month was a misinterpretation of the CARES Act. Miller added that the department’s position “could significantly harm the vulnerable students who were intended to benefit the most from the critical federal COVID-19 education relief funds Congress has provided.”
Read DeVos’ May 22 letter below:
Photo: Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos testifies at a House Appropriations Subcommittee budget hearing in February. --Graeme Sloan/Education Week