Trump then threatened that if schools don’t reopen for in-person instruction in the fall, the federal government might withhold the billions and billions of dollars it sends to primary and secondary education each year. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos later clarified that the federal government would not withhold public education funding entirely but instead convert grants to schools and districts that don’t open sufficiently into private education vouchers for families.
Amid a pandemic and the White House’s mismanaged response, this might seem like quid pro quo that uses the federal government’s education dollars as leverage to force states and school districts to reestablish normalcy, however unsafe the public health conditions. And it is that, partly. But the tactic is also a step toward a familiar old conservative education policy goal to convert K-12 education funding into a sort of scholarship program for families to use however they wish — disguised as a brave new reform.
DeVos has been obsessed with this specific policy idea, often referred to as making public education funds “portable,” throughout her tenure. “We should be funding and investing in students, not in … school buildings, not in institutions, not in systems,” she told 60 Minutes’ Lesley Stahl in 2018. Since taking office, she’s searched for ways to push federal funding for public schools away from public schools. Last spring, DeVos joined Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) to propose a new Education Freedom Scholarships tax credit that would allow individuals to shift their federal tax dollars toward scholarships they could use at private schools.
DeVos also initially pushed to tilt coronavirus relief funds away from public schools and toward private schools. In the face of widespread opposition, her department modified that proposal, though public school advocates continue to express skepticism. She also announced plans to use some of the CARES Act funding to provide “microgrants” to support home schooling families.
But the push this past week wasn’t just a retread of a conservative education policy idea: It was also a standard, familiar political play of never letting a good crisis go to waste. Before becoming secretary of education, DeVos spent much of her career exploring ways to divert public education dollars toward private schools that avoid public accountability — for students’ academic performance, for civil rights oversight or for maintaining the separation of church and state.
One possible reason DeVos is using the pandemic to justify her crusade is that position has not historically been very politically popular. In 2018, when Republicans controlled both houses of Congress, she advocated heavy cuts to her own department’s budget along with the launch of a new, $1 billion grants program that would provide some public funding for private school vouchers. Even the GOP Congress ignored her proposed cuts, increased funding for the department and rejected the new voucher program.
Indeed, efforts to remake federal education funding into a sort of individual coupon that students and families can use to shop for an education were a perennial — and perennially rejected — feature of conservative proposals to replace No Child Left Behind during the Obama administration. When Congress finally completed that task in 2015 with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), portable education funding didn’t make the cut, even though Republicans controlled both houses of Congress then, too. Public dollars for private schools: it’s an idea whose time never to come.
This time will be no different. The law does not give DeVos the authority to unilaterally divert money from schools to parents, and there is little evidence that Congress would support a change to allow it (especially not with Democrats running the House). Indeed, during her confirmation hearings, DeVos acknowledged that she would not be able to legally push school vouchers into ESSA without congressional approval.
That hints at the tragedy of the administration’s sudden school reopening scheme. If enacted, it would layer bad policy thinking atop beleaguered public schools, who already face dramatic budget cuts as states’ tax revenue collapse during the pandemic’s economic downturn. The Council of Chief State School Officers estimates that schools would need between $158 billion and $245 billion in additional federal support to cover the state funding cuts and follow the Center for Disease Control’s coronavirus recommendations for reopening safely in the fall. This coronavirus relief funding would cover significant new costs, like running extra buses to allow for socially distant school transportation, lowering class sizes, and providing protective safety gear for teachers.
Education leaders at all levels are already scrambling to try to figure out how to run the 2020-21 school year (which, in some districts, would usually start in just a few weeks). Many are preparing to return to some forms of distance or online learning. Nearly all are navigating uncertain public health conditions, overheated public debates on the right course of action for schools and the shifting state of research on how the virus may or may not spread on K-12 campuses.
Meanwhile, American children are in dire need of the social, emotional and academic learning they get at school. Working families are indeed desperate for relief from juggling work and caregiving. The economic toll continues to mount — along with a horrifying spike in new coronavirus cases that have secured the United States the dubious honor of hosting the world’s worst outbreak of the pandemic.
Instead of facing these challenges by addressing the virus head-on so that schools can reopen safely as soon as possible, the administration is trying to use exhausted families’ anxieties to override educators’ safety concerns and schools’ need for resources.
This plan won’t address anyone’s needs, though. It’s just a reversion to our muddling pandemic pattern, ensuring that we instead spend precious days jockeying over an infeasible, unhelpful distraction meant to achieve conservative policy goals rather than real relief for parents, students and educators.