DeVos Targets $180 Million in State CARES Act Public School Relief Funds to School Choice and Virtual Schools

Last Monday, in the same week The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities announced New CBO Projections Suggest Even Bigger State Shortfalls, Betsy DeVos launched a new grant competition made up of coronavirus (CARES Act) relief money to lure states into enacting her own school privatization priorities, something Congress has persistently blocked.  Most of us instead would like to see our states use federal CARES Act money to avoid the kind of massive layoffs of public school teachers being predicted by the Learning Policy Institute to ensure that class sizes remain reasonable when school reopens.  And we’d like to be sure that our schools won’t lay off more counselors, nurses, librarians and music and art teachers.

Congress allocated some of the money in the CARES (coronavirus relief) Act to help states maintain public school funding during what we all know is coming: a state budget crisis as sales and income tax revenues collapse because businesses are shutting down and many people are losing their jobs.  Now, Chalkbeat’s Matt Barnum reports: Betsy DeVos has set aside some of this money (1) for states to give parents  microgrants for parents to pay for access to remote learning, (2) for states to invest in virtual schools, and (3) for states to create models for as yet unimagined remote education possibilities.

The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss explains exactly which money Betsy DeVos plans to spend on these microgrants for parents’ online access, for states establishing of new virtual schools, and some kind of unspecified new “innovation” strategies for remote learning: “Congress allocated $30.75 billion in its recent coronavirus relief legislation to help states, K-12 school districts and higher education systems respond to the pandemic… Within that fund, it set aside $308 million in emergency education relief ‘for grants to states with the highest coronavirus burden.’  DeVos is using $180 million of that money for her ‘Rethink K-12 Education Models Grant’ program that invites states to find ‘new innovative ways for students to access K-12 education.”

Despite that the U.S. Department of Education exists for the purpose of providing compensatory funding for public schools that serve concentrations of very poor children, for funding and administering the massive Individuals with Disabilities Education Act for disabled students, for administering and supporting the needs of other underserved groups of students enrolled in public schools, and for enforcing civil rights protection for the nation’s public school students, DeVos is looking, as usual, to fund alternatives to public schools.

DeVos shares her bias in the announcement of the new grant program: “If our ability to educate is limited to what takes place in any given physical building, we are never going to meet the unique needs of every student.  The current disruption to the normal model is reaffirming something I have said for years: we must rethink education to better match the realities of the 21st century.  This is the time for local education leaders to unleash their creativity and ingenuity, and I’m looking forward to seeing what they do to provide education freedom and economic opportunity for America’s students”

Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa provides details about DeVos’s new Rethink K-12 Education Models grants. Governors must demonstrate their support, for example, and states must provide public health data to demonstrate the impact of the coronavirus on their state.  Ujifusa also describes details in the first two categories of these grants—the microgrants states would pass on to parents and the statewide virtual school grants.

In the first category, grants must be administered by states which must ensure they notify “the most disadvantaged students and parents” of the availability of the microgrants. Parents who secure these grants could use them for: “tuition and fees for a public or private course or program, especially online; special education and related services including therapies…; contracted educational services provided by a public or nonpublic school; academic college and career counseling; and application fees including for public and nonpublic school students.”  The funds may also be used by parents for computer technology including hardware, software, internet access, internet hotspots, and textbooks. Ujifusa adds, “The different ways parents can use this money makes the microgrants more similar to education savings accounts as opposed to common voucher programs that are strictly for private school tuition.”

Ujifusa continues: “States can use the second grant… not just for virtual schools and course-access programs; they could also use them to implement instructional methods such as competency-based instruction.”  However, “the state would have to show how a proposed course access program ‘would make a broad range of courses widely available and free for all students in the State.’  The nation’s largest virtual school, the Florida Virtual School, got its start in part with a grant of just $200,000 in 1996 for two school districts to provide five online courses; a Florida virtual high school launched a year later. So if leaders in a state have had interest in starting an online school but haven’t yet, a Rethink grant could help seed one….”

The grants are part of a $180 million funding line in the CARES Act designated for states hardest hit by the coronavirus. In an article earlier last week, Ujifusa wonders whether these states will seek grants for the purpose to which DeVos is earmarking the money: “It is not clear to what extent states that have struggled with relatively large numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths, such as Michigan, New Jersey, and New York would seek out this grant money, or if states with well-established virtual learning infrastructures like Florida would be major beneficiaries. Peer reviewers will judge states’ applications, and the highest-scoring states will get grants.”

Chalkbeat’s Matt Barnum also wonders whether these grants will really be awarded to the states where the coronavirus has been severe: “In awarding these grants,the department says it will consider the coronavirus’ impact on a state—the stated purpose of the money, as allocated by Congress. But its criteria go far beyond that, raising the possibility that grants will end up in states that have not been hit hardest by the virus.  Forty of the 100 points of the scoring rubric relate to a state’s coronavirus cases and the ability to transition to remote instruction.”

The chair of the House of Representatives Appropriations Subcommittee that allocates money for the U.S. Department of Education, Rep. Rosa DeLauro is extremely skeptical of DeVos’s motives for creating the microgrants: “At best the Secretary is exploiting emergency relief legislation to insert Secretarial priorities not outlined in this section of the CARES Act.  At worst, the Secretary is deliberately misreading the law to conjure up purposes for these resources that were not provided in… the law.  Secretary DeVos must back down from these inappropriate actions during this time of national emergency and refrain from imposing new restrictions and conditions on the aid provided to States.”

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