The New York Times Company
WASHINGTON — Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, defiant amid criticism that she is using the coronavirus pandemic to pursue a long-sought agenda, said she will force public school districts to share a large portion of federal rescue funding with private school students, regardless of income.
DeVos announced the measure in a letter to the Council of Chief State School Officers, which represents state education chiefs, defending her position on how education funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, should be spent.
“The CARES Act is a special, pandemic-related appropriation to benefit all American students, teachers and families,” DeVos wrote in the letter Friday. “There is nothing in the act suggesting Congress intended to discriminate between children based on public or nonpublic school attendance, as you seem to do. The virus affects everyone.”
A range of education officials say DeVos’ guidance would divert millions of dollars away from disadvantaged students and force districts starved of tax revenues during an economic crisis to support even the wealthiest private schools. The association representing the nation’s schools superintendents told districts to ignore the guidance, and at least two states — Indiana and Maine — said they would.
Private school leaders, who serve about 5.7 million of the nation’s children, say they too are in crisis. Enrollment and tuition revenues are plunging along with philanthropic donations and church collections that help some religious schools operate. Many of those schools serve low-income students whose parents have fled failing public schools.
Under federal education law, school districts are required to use funding intended for their poorest students to provide “equitable services,” such as tutoring and transportation, for low-income students attending private schools in their districts. But DeVos maintains the coronavirus rescue law does not limit funding to just poor students, and her guidance would award private schools more services than the law would normally require.
Private school groups lobbying Congress say that if 20% of private school students were to be absorbed into the public school system, it would cost the public system roughly $15 billion.
Public school groups said that the argument proves their point.
“I think it’s more proof that we need to be focused on public education, because if public education is not fully funded, there is no fallback,” said Maggie Garrett, co-chairwoman of the National Coalition for Public Education.