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Lawmakers Tell Betsy DeVos Her COVID-19 Guidance Is ‘Robbing Public Schools’

By Andrew Ujifusa — May 20, 2020 3 min read
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Top Democrats for education in Congress told U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos that her guidance about federal coronavirus relief is way out of bounds and that she should abandon it.

A letter sent Wednesday to DeVos by the heads of two House education panels and a top member of the Senate education committee says that through that guidance, DeVos “seeks to repurpose hundreds-of-millions of taxpayer dollars intended for public school students to provide services for private school students, in contravention of both the plain reading of the statute and the intent of Congress.” They also cite analyses provided by states about the amount and share of relief aid that would shift from public to private school students due to the guidance.

“Given that the guidance contradicts the clear requirements of the CARES Act, it will cause confusion among States and [school districts] that will be uncertain of how to comply with both the Department’s guidance and the plain language of the CARES Act,” the letter says. It was accompanied by a press release that says the guidance is “robbing public schools of COVID-19 relief funding.”

The message from the Democrats to DeVos cranks up the temperature still further on a heated dispute over a directive DeVos issued a few weeks ago regarding the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. In essence, the secretary’s guidance—which does not have the force of law— says districts must share CARES aid earmarked for local schools with private school students in general, under a provision of the law called “equitable services.” Normally under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the main federal K-12 law, only certain at-risk or failing private school students qualify for equitable services.

The U.S. Department of Education’s position is that since CARES Act aid is meant to benefit all students regardless of where they go to schools, private school students qualify for the aid just like their peers in traditional public schools. However, critics—including groups representing state education chiefs and district administrators—say the guidance doesn’t match how equitable services is supposed to work.

In their latest coronavirus aid package, House Democrats included a provision that nullifies the guidance, although whether that will survive in a new relief bill remains to be seen.

The split is the latest area where DeVos has sought to elevate education options outside of traditional public schools, and where she has drawn the ire of state and district K-12 officials. And the issue of public aid for private schools, and the viability of private schools generally during the pandemic, continues to draw attention.

On Tuesday, DeVos went on a SiriusXM radio show hosted by Catholic Cardinal Timothy Michael Dolan and said that in the context of an additional federal relief package, she is “committed to fighting for the opportunity” for children at private schools, and to ensuring that those schools “can continue to operate.” Private school advocates have hailed DeVos’ guidance, and have also told Congress that keeping private schools open will also help public schools during the economic fallout caused by the pandemic.

However, a small share of schools are slated to miss out on the primary source of aid for local districts in the CARES Act.

Two states, Indiana and Maine, have said they will not to adhere to DeVos’ CARES Act guidance. Another state, Tennessee, has said it will follow the directive.

Wednesday’s letter to DeVos was signed by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., the chairwoman of the House subcommittee that controls the Education Department’s budget; Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the Senate education committee; and Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the chairman of the House education committee.

Photos from left: U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks to a House subcommittee about the President Donald Trump’s fiscal 2021 budget proposal; Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., address DeVos during the hearing. (Graeme Sloan/Education Week; diptych by Andrew Ujifusa/Education Week)