DeVos issues rule directing more virus aid to private schools

The Trump administration pushed ahead Thursday with a policy directing U.S. public schools to share coronavirus relief funds with private schools at a higher rate than is normally required by federal law.

Under a new rule issued by the Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, school districts are mandated to reserve a portion of their aid for private schools using a formula based on the total number of private school students in the district.

The policy has been contested by public school officials who say funds should be shared based on the number of low-income students in local private schools rather than their total enrollment. This is how funds are shared with private schools under other federal rules that Congress referenced in legislation creating relief aid.

But DeVos said Thursday that the funds are separate from other federal aid and were intended to support all students.

“There is nothing in the law passed by Congress that allows districts to discriminate against children and teachers based on private school attendance and employment,” DeVos said in a call with reporters.

The difference between the two formulas amounts to tens of millions of dollars. In Louisiana, for example, private schools are estimated to get at least 267% more under the DeVos formula. In the Orleans State Parish, at least 77% of their relief allocation would end up going to private schools.

The Department of Education issued the rule through a process that is generally used in emergencies and immediately gives politics the force of law. DeVos said urgent action was needed after dozens of private schools closed permanently as a result of the pandemic. She called it an “impending crisis” for the nation.

DeVos has long supported private schools and has championed school choice throughout his career. Since last year, she has been pushing a plan to provide tax credits for scholarships that send students to private schools or other educational options. She and Vice President Mike Pence promoted the plan Tuesday at a school choice event in Wisconsin, but the measure has not yet gained traction in Congress.

The new rule largely reflects the guidance issued by DeVos in April to tell districts to share relief aid based on the total number of private school students in their areas. However, the new rule provides an exception: Public schools can use the low-income formula if their own relief aid is used entirely on the district’s low-income students.

The money set aside for private schools should be used to provide “equitable services” to their students, which may include transportation, counseling, tutoring, and summer programs.

Any private school can ask for support from their local district, but the new rule urges the wealthiest schools to reject it. The policy says that taxpayer funds should not go to “boarding schools and day schools with tuition and fees comparable to those charged by the most selective post-secondary institutions.”

Democrats and public school officials condemned the rule, saying it gives private schools a disproportionate share of aid. Rep. Bobby Scott, a Democrat from Virginia, chair of the House of Representatives education committee, urged DeVos to withdraw him and “follow the law that Congress enacted.”

Rep. Bobby Scott
Rep. Bobby ScottAP

“The department should provide clear leadership and guidance to help students, parents, and school districts cope with the impact of the pandemic. Instead, it has issued another confusing directive that will undermine efforts to maintain access to education during this pandemic, ”said Scott.

DeVos previously promised to follow a federal rule on the matter after some states said they would ignore his guidance. The Indiana chief of education said the guide was merely a recommendation and decided to divide the funds “in accordance with the intent of Congress and a clear reading of the law.”

The dispute centers on a single passage in the federal aid bill that allocated $ 13 billion for the nation’s schools. The legislation says public schools should set aside funds to provide services to private schools “in the same way” that they do under Title I, a federally funded program for low-income schools.

Public school officials say Congress clearly intended to transfer the low-income distribution formula to the Title I program. Democrats have said that was their intention, and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, president of the The Senate’s education committee has said that was what the majority of Congress expected.

But senior Education Department officials have questioned the meaning of the phrase “in the same way as”, arguing that if Congress wanted to replicate the Title I formula, it would have used the phrase “according to.”

Although the rule takes effect immediately, the Department of Education will open it for 30 days of public comment to collect comments.

DeVos has been accused of doubling the formula to benefit the private schools she has advocated. On Thursday, the Association of School Superintendents said the rule represents “an opportunistic hoarding of money, which uses the pandemic environment to advance the privatization agenda.”

But DeVos argued that all types of schools have been hit by the pandemic and deserve relief.

“Now is the time to focus on doing the right thing for all students,” said DeVos.