Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced Friday that she would force public school districts to share a portion of federal relief funds provided by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, on private schools. The rescue package set aside more than $13 billion to help public schools struggling with pandemic-related deficits.

DeVos announced that she would be enforcing the controversial policy in a letter to the Council of Chief State Officers, which represents state education chiefs. The council had previously allocated funds from the CARES Act only to public schools.

“The CARES Act is a special, pandemic-related appropriation to benefit all American students, teachers and families,” DeVos wrote in her statement. “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.”

According to a letter written by members of the House Committee on Education and Labor, the CARES Act intended to allocate funds on a district-level based on how many low-income students a district serves – the same way that the federal government distributes Title I funds.

Following DeVos’s guidance would result in millions of taxpayer dollars being diverted from disadvantaged students and districts struggling without their typical tax revenues, to private schools with no regard for their income. The money would be allocated based on the overall number of students a district serves. This could force taxpayers in districts with large private school populations to spend money on wealthier private school students rather than on low-income students. Nationwide, school districts would have to reserve funds for roughly 5.7 million private school students, of which approximately 300,000 qualify as low-income.

“This will only increase the challenges that the highest poverty schools face,” Dereck W. Black, University of South Carolina law professor and expert on federal education policy, wrote for The Daily Beast. “Before the pandemic even hit, public schools serving the highest-poverty communities had $1,000 less per student than those educating affluent students. These shortfalls are likely to expand based on current economic conditions.”

This announcement came alongside accusations that DeVos has exploited the coronavirus pandemic to further an agenda that favors private religious schools. DeVos has been a vocal advocate for district-level school choice programs that provide taxpayer money to children attending private and religious schools. Critics have suggested that she is using the pandemic to actualize this kind of policy.

Resistance to DeVos’s policy has been swift. A recently passed House bill would clarify the intent of the CARES Act to limit private schools from obtaining any pandemic-related emergency relief funding moving forward.

The national association of school superintendents has directed school districts to ignore Devos’s order. Two states, Indiana and Maine, previously said they would ignore the guidance as long as it was non-binding.

Sources: The New York Times 5/27/2020; Politico 5/26/2020; NPR 5/21/2020

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