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Sen. Alexander Splits From Betsy DeVos on COVID-19 Aid to Help Private Schools

By Andrew Ujifusa — May 21, 2020 4 min read
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The chairman of the U.S. Senate education committee says he has a different interpretation than the head of the U.S. Department of Education of how much federal coronavirus aid should be available to private school students.

But Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., also said that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos might have the authority to try to direct the money in the manner she has, and indicated he might take another look at the issue.

In a Thursday remote press conference with reporters, Alexander also expanded on past comments he’s made that testing will be the key to helping schools reopen after shutting down due to the coronavirus. Recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will help, he said, but he stressed that different schools should be free to make independent decisions.

Alexander also said schools should have protection against legal liability when they move to reopen, but that they shouldn’t expect Congress to provide schools with a big infusion of more emergency aid in the very near future.

Here’s more on the split between Alexander and DeVos about that guidance: A few weeks ago, DeVos issued guidance for the CARES Act that, in essence, said that school districts should distribute the relief money to support all private school students in their attendance areas. Typically, under Title I of the Every Student Succeeds Act, only certain at-risk private school students are eligible for such money under what’s called “equitable services.” (CARES stands for Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security.)

The Education Department has said its guidance is based on the idea that CARES money is meant to help all students regardless of whether they attend public or private schools. But state and local education officials have publicly criticized the guidance, saying that it’s not the right interpretation of the relief law, and others have said the guidance is a thinly-veiled attempt to help private schools at the expense of public schools.

On Thursday, when a reporter asked Alexander about whether he agrees with DeVos’ CARES Act guidance, the senator responded, “I thought, and I think most of Congress thought, that money from the CARES Act would be distributed in the same way that Title I is distributed.”

That doesn’t match DeVos’ guidance. Her department’s position is that equitable services for private school students under the CARES Act is not bound by the rules of Title I. (Technically, equitable services benefit private school students and don’t provide financial benefits directly to private schools themselves, but they still ultimately assist private schools, especially when their finances are being hit hard by the virus.)

However, Alexander stopped short of saying that he thinks DeVos overstepped any boundaries by issuing that guidance. Congress has the power to nullify DeVos’ guidance, but the senator—who is retiring at the end of his term in 2020—did not indicate that he would support overturning her directive, which does not have the force of law.

Later on Thursday, when asked about Alexander’s response and whether she plan to revise or abandon the guidance, DeVos reiterated the department’s position that CARES money is meant for all K-12 students who need assistance during the pandemic. She added that traditional public schools should “work together” with private schools to see what private school students need.

In their latest relief bill that’s not expected to become law, House Democrats included a provision that would overturn the guidance.

How Schools Can Reopen Safely

Alexander also weighed in on ways for K-12 schools to reopen, and said that making sure schools and colleges reopen later this year will be one of the most important factors in helping the country return to a sense of “normalcy.”

As he did during a recent Senate committee hearing, Alexander stressed the importance of testing to ensure that schools can reopen safely, and he expressed confidence in the future ability of officials to gather critical information about the spread of the virus: “There will be many more tests. Contact tracing will be better established.”

He said that because of state and union rules, K-12 might have less flexibility than colleges and universities when it comes to how they operate. But he also noted that recent CDC guidance that recommends, for example, that all school staff wear face masks, is not the law and need not be treated as such. And he said that he doesn’t think the federal government needs to issue additional guidance to specify how much testing is necessary for schools to reopen. Such steps, he said, will be best determined by local education officials.

“A school in Wyoming and a school in rural Tennessee and a school in Brooklyn are not going to be the same,” Alexander said.

After assessing their situations and figuring out the resources they require that they can’t get for themselves, Alexander said, “The colleges and the schools and the states should tell Washington what their needs are, and then Washington should fill in the gaps.”

The senator also said that he and his Republican colleagues will insist that in future COVID-19 relief legislation both K-12 and higher education receive legal protections when it comes to when and how they reopen.

Alexander indicated he wasn’t in a huge rush to pass a big new relief package for schools or other parts of society. School districts have been sounding the alarm for weeks about what they say is a looming collapse in state support for education, and how that loss of money will hit disadvantaged students and relatively poor districts especially hard.

But Alexander said he’s interested to see how effective CARES Act relief is “before we appropriate more” money.

Photo: Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, speaks with reporters on Jan. 24, 2018 at the Capitol in Washington. --J. Scott Applewhite/AP