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DeVos's Channeling of CARES Act Funds Seen as Boosting 'Perennial Goal' of Advancing Voucher Program

New reporting on the Education Secretary's directing of the money follows concern by a House Democrat that DeVos may be hampering "the response of public school systems in the states most severely impacted by the coronavirus crisis."

A teacher collects supplies needed to continue remote teaching through the end of the school year at Yung Wing School P.S. 124 on May 14, 2020 in New York City.

A teacher collects supplies needed to continue remote teaching through the end of the school year at Yung Wing School P.S. 124 on May 14, 2020 in New York City. In April, it was announced that NYC public schools would be closed at least through the end of the school year amid the spread of coronavirus. (Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

Suspicions that the Trump administration is using the cover of the coronavirus pandemic to advance its controversial agenda swirled again Friday after new reporting revealed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is directing to private and religious schools hundreds of millions of dollars included as part of the $2 trillion coronavirus relief package meant largely to boost public education.

As Erica L. Green reported for the New York Times, the CARES Act, passed in March, included roughly $30 billion for educational institutions economically impacted by the pandemic. Around $14 billion of that was for colleges and universities, and $13.5 was for K-12 schools. Governors could utilize the remaining $3 billion at their discretion to support their state's educational needs.

From the Times:

Ms. DeVos has used $180 million of those dollars to encourage states to create "microgrants" that parents of elementary and secondary school students can use to pay for educational services, including private school tuition. She has directed school districts to share millions of dollars designated for low-income students with wealthy private schools.

And she has nearly depleted the 2.5 percent of higher education funding, about $350 million, set aside for struggling colleges to bolster small colleges—many of them private, religious, or on the margins of higher education— regardless of need. The Wright Graduate University for the Realization of Human Potential, a private college in Wisconsin that has a website debunking claims that it is a cult, received about $495,000.

"The most contentious move," Green reported, "is guidance that directs school districts to increase the share of dollars they spend on students in private schools."

Under federal education law, school districts are required to use funding it receives for its poorest students to provide "equitable services," such as tutoring and transportation for low-income students attending private schools in their districts. But the department said districts should use their emergency funding, which was doled out based on student poverty rates, to support all students attending private schools in their districts, regardless of income.

The microgrant progam, the Times added, could "benefit virtual education companies that Ms. DeVos has personally invested in."

Yale philosophy professor Jason Stanley responded to the new reporting by tweeting the move was an example of "never waste a crisis news." 

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Lindsey Barrett, a staff attorney and teaching fellow at the IPR Communications & Technology Clinic at Georgetown Law, tweeted that the reporting provided more evidence of federal "agency officials hell-bent on screwing over poor students." 

Devos's moves with the relief funds haven't gone unnoticed by House Education and Labor chairman Bobby Scott (D-Va.).

"The CARES Act allocated $307 million to support states with the highest coronavirus burden and outlined the services that should be provided to address the problem. The Department has ignored this directive and instead repurposed these funds to pursue its perennial goal of establishing a national private school voucher program," Scott wrote to DeVos.

In Scott's letter, dated May 8, he says the Education Department's "unauthorized" use of the relief funds could jeopardize "the response of public school systems in the states most severely impacted by the coronavirus crisis."

The $180 million microgrant program, wrote Scott, "mirrors the department's longstanding, unauthorized proposal to create a federal school voucher program."

From the letter:

I call on you to rescind this grant proposal that would direct federal funding to for-profit companies and private schools, and to develop new metrics for grant programs authorized under this section that more accurately depict the relative burden coronavirus is having in the states. Congressional intent was to direct additional federal funding to states with the highest coronavirus burdens to ensure their schools received the support and services necessary to address the needs of the students most disadvantaged during this pandemic. I ask that you recognize and adhere to this intent.

The new reporting from the Times comes as DeVos is hit with a new lawsuit over her Education Department's change to Title IX, which cover how U.S. schools are required to handle sexual harassment and assault allegations involving students.

Filed Thursday by the ACLU, the suit claims that the new rules would silence student survivors and limit their educational opportunities.

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