If schools remain closed or have trouble resuming normal operations later this summer and in the fall, the blame should fall at the feet of President Donald Trump and not state and local leaders, the head of the Democratic National Committee said Wednesday.
In a virtual conference Wednesday hosted by the DNC that focused on how Michigan’s schools are coping with the coronavirus pandemic, DNC Chairman Tom Perez sharply criticized how Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have addressed a wide variety of education issues. For example, he singled out DeVos, who is from Michigan, for seeking to redirect a relatively large share of coronavirus relief money to private school students.
But how fair is to to assign blame to Trump and DeVos over what happens to schools as they look at reopening their doors for the next academic year?
When we asked Perez why Trump should shoulder primary responsibility if schools struggle, given that state and local leaders have more direct power over K-12 education, he countered that the impact of the president’s failure to properly address the pandemic in January and February was “impossible to overstate.” Without a strong testing and tracing system, he said, schools ultimately would not be able to pick up where they left off.
Perez, a former labor secretary in the Obama administration, swatted away the idea that “if we are unable to open up our schools again, it’s somehow a failure locally when you’ve had this abject failure of the federal government to lead.”
“For this president, the buck stops anywhere but him,” said Perez, who added that he admired the work of Democratic as well as Republican governors to address the pandemic.
When we asked the Trump administration for a response to Perez’s comments, White House Deputy Press Secretary Judd Deere said in a statement that, “Under the leadership of President Trump, the United States has done more than double the number of tests of any country in the world. We are the global leader in testing capacity and continue to work with governors to ensure they have enough capacity for a safe, responsible reopen.”
The Trump administration has released a blueprint for testing and rapid-response programs. Primary responsibilities for the federal government under this plan include providing “strategic direction and technical assistance” about the best use of coronavirus testing technology, and working with states to make the best use of testing supplies.
‘Lead Through Testing’
Decisions about whether to close and when to reopen in-person instruction ultimately lie with states, although details of whether and how remote instruction is provided to students during closures are largely calls that individual school districts must make.
There is a host of concerns about reopening schools, including core questions about when older teachers and those with underlying health issues should be expected to return. Trump has encouraged schools to reopen soon, although he’s also expressed concerns about the health of teachers over 60. Trump administration guidelines released last month encouraged a phased reopening in which schools that had been shut down would remain closed in the first phase.
On Tuesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top epidemiologist, told senators that widespread testing and tracing of COVID-19 will be essential to boost public confidence in the idea that children can return safely to schools. And Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate committee that hosted Fauci and other federal health officials at a hearing, seemed to agree with the point, saying, “All roads back to work and school lead through testing.”
Fauci added that he did not think there would be a vaccine available by the 2020-21 school year and that the prospect of one should not factor into education officials’ decisions about when and how to reopen schools.
During the Wednesday virtual conference, Grand Rapids, Mich., teacher Wendy Winston criticized a Michigan state Republican senator’s comments about the chance for a 20 to 25 percent cut in the state’s foundation grant for K-12. That lawmaker, Sen. Wayne Schmidt, the chairman of the Senate committee for education spending, said he’s warned schools to “prepare for the worst” budget in decades.
In general, there are growing concerns about how a collapse in state spending on schools could exacerbate glaring inequities in K-12 education. Click here to see your school district’s level of risk for significant budget cuts.
A COVID-19 relief bill from congressional Democrats would earmark nearly $60 billion for school districts and provide nearly $1 trillion in general aid to state and local governments, although Republicans in control of the U.S. Senate have rejected the plan.
“We can’t afford decreasing funding for public education,” Winston said.
Photo: Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez speaks before a Democratic presidential primary debate in Atlanta last year. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)