Vouchers Over Virus: How the Department of Education Prioritized Private School Vouchers Over Responding to COVID-19

Amid the outbreak of the coronavirus in the United States this winter, schools faced their greatest disruption in generations with the abrupt switch to remote learning for the remainder of the 2019-2020 academic year. Public school systems were soon confronted with the complicated task of preparing for the new school year, with giant question marks about how COVID-19 diagnoses would affect their communities, what budgets should look like to provide necessary technology and personal protective equipment (PPE) to students and staff, and how safety concerns during the pandemic would affect the retention of students and educators.

The severity of the COVID-19 crisis demands a response from the federal government commensurate to its devastating impact on the education system, and the top priorities for the U.S. Department of Education over the summer should have been reopening schools safely in accordance with public health guidance and securing the resources needed to do so. Long-term efforts to improve choices within the public school system are also important, but leveraging the crisis to focus on private school vouchers to the exclusion of a coherent pandemic response is indefensible.

Secretary DeVos prioritized her long-term private school voucher agenda over safe reopening

The federal government’s role this spring and summer should have been to support local education leaders in implementing social distancing, providing PPE for educators and students, and logistically planning for a safe reopening. There is a clear need for additional stimulus funding for education, as well as a need for those investments to address the inequitable impacts of the pandemic on high-poverty areas and on Black, Latinx, and Native American communities.

Yet between Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos remained largely mum on the current crisis, instead continuing to focus on increasing private school vouchers and sending public money to private schools—even using the pandemic as an opportunity to advance this agenda. The secretary’s social media, media advisories, and speeches, as well as the Education Department’s press releases, offered little public support to education leaders grappling with pressing instructional challenges.

For example, a June Supreme Court decision related to private school vouchers, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, received more attention on the secretary’s Twitter feed than did the COVID-19 crisis during the entire month. When Congress included language in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act that provided funding for equitable services to private schools based on their share of students from families with low incomes, the Education Department spent months on an ultimately unsuccessful effort to direct more money to private schools based on private schools’ higher share of total enrollment. Additionally, the policy priority highlighted in a June update to Education Department stakeholders had nothing to do with responding to the coronavirus or supporting schools in reopening safely, but rather stated that the “Trump [a]dministration renewed its push to enact school choice legislation.”

A tweet from President Donald Trump in July pushing for schools to reopen in the fall also led to a higher public profile for Secretary DeVos, despite a lack of clarity in her remarks about what reopening schools safely should look like. The administration then pushed to tie additional federal aid for schools to in-person instruction, even as pediatricians and education groups sought to avoid politicizing school reopening decisions and parents expressed growing concerns about returning to in-person learning.

Months after the House passed the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act—which allocated significant funding for state and local fiscal stabilization, including nearly $60 billion dedicated to K-12 public schools—Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell introduced a bill in early September that included far less overall fiscal aid, conditioned much of the education aid on reopening for in-person instruction, and called for a new private school voucher initiative at the federal level. The bill’s voucher concept added an “emergency” designation to an already existing proposal in an attempt to tie private school vouchers to pandemic relief. These grants were part of the Education Department’s ongoing advocacy spotlighted in its June stakeholder update, and the proposal has yet to move forward in the House or Senate since it was introduced in early 2019. With the Senate bill failing to garner the support necessary to advance to the floor, it is unclear if fiscal aid for public schools and other government services will pass this fall, even as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced that she would not adjourn without further legislative action. Without additional federal aid, many states and school districts may be forced to make mid-year budget cuts as a result of the economic slowdown.

Long-term recovery should include investments in public school choice

Rather than prioritizing the diversion of taxpayer funds into private school vouchers, the Education Department should focus on long-term recovery from the pandemic and ensure that all public schools are providing a quality education for every child. This recovery effort should involve significantly more investment in the public schools that serve 90 percent of U.S. students, which would include funding for high-quality charter schools, magnet schools, and other specialized schools of choice within traditional school districts.

Public money should support public schools, which include schools of choice within traditional school districts as well as independently operated public charter schools. Strong public education systems require that schools are properly funded, serve all students equitably, and provide teachers and families with the supports they need for students to succeed. Policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels should take a balanced approach to charter school policy and treat charter schools as a tool that communities can leverage to improve public education systems overall.

For the Education Department, supporting these efforts means modernizing the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP). Although the bulk of the CSP’s funding currently supports new charter schools as they prepare to open, its responsibilities should be broadened to help communities implement smart growth policies such as common planning across sectors for new schools and programs, supporting existing charters to help them improve, and addressing and preventing problems within the charter sector.

Conclusion

The past six months have made clear that private school vouchers are a higher priority for Secretary DeVos and the Trump administration than providing parents with quality public school options and mitigating the massive disruption to public education caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Rather than urging schools to follow reopening advice from health experts, the Education Department wasted critical months this summer fighting unsuccessful legal battles to divert additional money to private schools; sought to condition aid on public schools opening for in-person instruction, regardless of local public health conditions; and attempted to use the pandemic to advance Secretary DeVos’ long-standing private school voucher agenda. In order to ensure that schools have the resources to respond to and help students recover from this crisis, Congress needs to provide significant fiscal aid for public schools, not advance the administration’s private school voucher agenda.

Neil Campbell is the director of innovation for K-12 Education Policy at the Center for American Progress.

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