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Trump Threatens to Defund Schools. Betsy Devos Basically Already Has

Betsy Devos wants public schools to reopen while diverting the money that is supposed to help them do so safely to private schools that don't need it.

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Worried about Trump pulling funding from public schools if they don’t re-open? By reallocating funds that should go to public schools, Betsy Devos basically already has pulled that funding. She may have said some silly things on national TV recently, but what she’s doing with taxpayer money is what you should really be mad about.

In May of 2020, the New York Times reported that Betsy Devos — the Education Secretary who is currently urging schools to reopen in the fall and who has long been an investor in and advocate of private, for-profit, and religious schools — has been funneling money allocated to educational institutions. She’s been doing this through the CARES Act which was passed in March of 2020. And the money is going away from public elementary, secondary schools and colleges and instead, going to private and religious schools. These allocations have nothing to do with private or charter schools in economic need, by the way. 

While the CARES Act funding for schools wasn’t only meant to go to public schools — because Coronavirus affects everyone, not just poor students — Devos has twisted the intent of the bill and begun to use it for her own political interests. Devos has diverted money from public schools, given it to private schools with little discretion or use of a need formula, and has attached severe restrictions to how public schools can use the federal aid at the same time. And because of this, you should be pissed off.

How Devos is moving money away from public education

Here’s the deal: the CARES Act included a total of $30 billion for educational institutions that have been economically harmed by COVID-19. $13.5 billion alone went to elementary schools and secondary schools. Shortly after that money was allocated, by mid-May, Devos had used $180 million of that money to essentially create a voucher system of microgrants — that allowed parents to use that money to pay for private school tuition or tutoring. And then she directed school districts to share millions of dollars that were designated to low-income students in Title I schools with private, wealthy schools where the vast majority of students are not struggling economically, depriving districts of much-needed, life-line level funds.

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In June, after sending millions of dollars to private schools and religious colleges, Devos went further and published “interim final rules” that would make private schools determine their fund eligibility by using total enrollment of students — instead of the number of enrolled low-income students, which is the funding formula that public schools have to go by. The other rule would disallow individual districts from using federal funding on non-Title I schools that also have many low-income students — basically giving private schools a free pass to spend and receive federal aid as they please while attaching lots of strings to that of public schools that might need the funding more, regardless of Title I status.

Devos is getting sued for this behavior by five states

The ruling has led five states to sue the administration. California, Michigan, Maine, New Mexico, Wisconsin, and Washington, D.C. all have filed suit against the Education Secretary over her what California Attorney General Xavier Becerra called “the Trump administration’s latest effort to steal from working families to give it to the very privileged.” The 45-page lawsuit, which is asking a court in northern California to issue an injunction to Devos’s efforts to create a rule that would derail pandemic funding, details Devos’s effort to redirect funds that Congress had sent to the lowest-income districts in the country through the Title I formula for determining student poverty to private schools that cater largely to wealthy students and already have lots of funding. In other words, Devos is using money that should be sent to schools to help keep kids safe — especially underfunded schools which will have trouble shoring up funds to increase health measures and enact social distancing policies — to play politics with kids lives. This is reprehensible. 

The battle over the ruling — both her interim final rule and the lawsuit that has sprouted out of her actions — is occurring in a larger context. The money that the states are fighting over — that 13.5 billion in emergency funding — is not nearly enough to combat the problems with the pandemic in school settings. The National Education Association has backed plans like the HEROES Act, which passed the House but hasn’t been put up to vote in the Senate, which would put $100 billion in schools that are struggling to break even amidst a pandemic. Some experts have suggested that districts would need nearly $2 million, on average, per district to prep schools for COVID-19.

Where we’re at now

Right now, states can’t get more federal funding, and the Senate hasn’t passed the HEROES Act since it passed the House in March. Instead, states are reduced to suing Devos for a paltry amount of funding that won’t even get some districts out of the red or won’t save many private schools from closing all together due to low enrollment. The money on the table won’t do enough to help schools adapt to the new times; to enact safe policies for students and the teachers who will risk their lives to teach their students; to increase budgets for cleaning, buses, and reduced class sizes. 

If it feels like the states and Devos are fighting over scraps, that’s because it is, and that’s because it is by design. Devos has made no commitments to put more money in schools altogether and has only worked to undermine Title I schools and public schools for her personally favored institutions like private and charter schools for the $13.5 billion on the table.

There are plenty of things to be mad at Betsy Devos about — and indeed, opening schools in the pandemic is a complicated issue that shouldn’t be decided by her or Trump — but her actions over that already inadequate $13.5 billion that has been allocated to public schools is, right now, her biggest, and the worst crime. If she was just saying foolish things on TV it might be easy to look away. But not spending money on public schools is a huge problem. She and Trump are threatening to defend public schools. In some ways, they already have.