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In this article in the New York Daily News, constitutional lawyer Derek Black explains how Betsy DeVos used her authority as Secretary of Educatiin to send federal dollars intended for public schools to elite private schools and religious schools. Black’s new book, “School House Burning,” is an outstanding read.
Betsy DeVos’ agenda to expand private education has floundered for three years. In 2017, public schools’ financial hole was too deep for either party in Congress to consider digging it deeper. But since March of this year, amidst a pandemic that has killed more than 170,000 Americans, cratered the economy and underlined the importance of public education, the U.S. secretary of education has made more headway than in the last three years combined.
Naively, Congress assumed that DeVos would put coronavirus response ahead of her ideological agenda. They were wrong, and now she is on the verge of turning the education policy world upside down.
In its first year, the administration proposed cutting and eliminating several public education programs and redirecting the money to school choice, including private schools. On top of that, it wanted a new tax credit program to fund private school tuition. Neither party took the proposal seriously. As Republican Sen. Roy Blunt remarked, “This is a difficult budget request to defend.” The story repeated itself each year since.
But in the rush to respond to COVID, DeVos saw an opening to exploit, and Congress gave her an unintentional assist. On its face, the CARES Act was all about the crisis. It doled out the biggest chunk of education money to public schools based on poverty. It put aside a smaller chunk for DeVos and states to spend on the evolving needs of distance learning and places hit the hardest by COVID.
Within days, DeVos was talking about spending her funds on “microgrants” that would operate like vouchers to fund private school tuition and services. Even if it flew in the face of congressional intent, the discretionary nature of the funds made it hard for anyone to stop her.
Next, DeVos threw 50 years of rules regarding how to allocate federal education dollars out the window. Normally, public schools share their federal poverty aid with private schools based on the number of low-income students that private schools enroll. The CARES Act said those same rules apply to COVID funds, but DeVos told public schools to share the money based on private schools’ total enrollment instead, which is overwhelmingly comprised of middle and upper-income students. And rather than back down in the face of overwhelming opposition, she doubled down, transforming her initial policy guidance into an actual federal rule.
For many school districts, that meant spending four, five and six times as much on private school students than ever before.
Unsurprisingly, states and individuals sued and a federal court blocked the rule last week.
As positive COVID cases continued to rise in July, DeVos then created the predicate to move even larger sums of money to private schools.
She demanded that public schools reopen fully and threatened to terminate their federal funding if they did not. While she lacked the authority to carry out the threat, she did begin shifting the narrative. The problem wasn’t COVID; the problem was public schools. And if they couldn’t do their job, private schools purportedly could.
A week after DeVos’ demand, friendly governors started following her lead. The CARES Act had given governors their own discretionary funds to respond to COVID. Like DeVos, they turned it into a slush fund to carry out the pre-existing agenda for private school vouchers. South Carolina’s governor announced that nearly three-quarters of his funds would go to vouchers.
The narrative shift was so effective that the Senate is reversing itself. The first version of its new COVID bill would condition two-thirds of public schools’ money on them physically reopening. A newer version also diverts 10% of the aid to private schools. Lamar Alexander, the chair of the Senate’s education committee, is also pushing a $5 billion tax credit bill similar to the one that DeVos proposed in her first year.
On the pretext of responding to a crisis, Betsy DeVos is trying to transform public education. If she gets what she wants, the effects will remain long after she’s gone — on American families and the nation itself.
Black is author of “Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy.”