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Trump Team Reinforces Tying Federal Money to School Reopenings

By Andrew Ujifusa — July 09, 2020 3 min read
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A day after President Donald Trump said his administration “may cut off funding” for schools that don’t resume face-to-face instruction, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said that rather than “pulling funding from education,” her department supports the idea that students in places where schools do not reopen should be able to take federal money and use it where they can get instruction.

Between those two public comments, late Wednesday Trump re-promoted his tweet from earlier in the day threatening to halt funding for schools that fail to reopen for the 2020-21 school year. Also on Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence said the administration would seek to “give states a strong incentive” to have schools restart in-person instruction in the next relief bill.

The flurry of comments from administration officials marks a frenzied news cycle this week for schools and educators looking to restart schools in some way in the fall. Several education groups as well as some lawmakers are blasting the Trump team’s public pressure strategy for trying to get schools to restart regular classes—in a conference call Wednesday, National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García called Trump an “idiot.”

On Tuesday in an interview with Fox News, DeVos said she was “very seriously considering” the idea of withholding federal funds from school districts that don’t reopen.

However, on Thursday, when asked by a Fox News host if the administration would be willing to “pull federal funding” from schools that don’t reopen buildings, DeVos responded that federal K-12 aid is a “promise” to students and families, and continued: “If schools aren’t going to reopen, we’re not suggesting pulling funding from education, but instead ... let families take that money and figure out where their kids can get educated if schools are going to refuse to open.”

DeVos did not specify whether she was discussing current education funding or any future virus relief package.

In response to a request for further comment about DeVos’ position, Education Department spokeswoman Angela Morabito said: “The Secretary is in full agreement with President Trump. If schools fail to meet their obligations to students and families by not reopening in the fall, they should not receive their full federal funding. Instead, any family should be able to take the tax dollars for their students’ education to a school of their choosing. The Secretary believes that funding should follow the individual student, not to a school building—especially if that school is closed.”

Many schools are considering hybrid reopening plans that depend on students learning from home a few days a week. However, this week DeVos has criticized schools’ remote learning efforts.

Two GOP members of the House have backed a bill to cut off federal aid for schools that don’t resume in-person classes by early September. However, there have been no indications by top lawmakers for education in Congress that they’re interested in conditioning federal aid on schools reopening their buildings—in fact, two House Democrats told us yesterday they’re opposed to the idea.

In her Thursday comments on Fox News, DeVos went on to stress the importance of attending in-person classes to children, stating that, “Schools can reopen safely and they must reopen safely.” And she noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention never recommended that schools shut their doors in the spring.

DeVos’ comments about families taking control of money connect to the Trump administration’s reported push for an emergency appropriation to fund scholarships for students to attend private schools. The Trump team reportedly also plans to support a $5 billion education tax-credit scholarship program that’s in a bill proposed in early 2019.

Late Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters that Trump wants to “substantially bump up funding for education” in the next pandemic relief bill, “but at the same time, we recognize that this money should go to students.”

Photo: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks during a White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing at the Department of Education building Wednesday, July 8, 2020, in Washington. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)