This summer some people have said it seems like deja vu all over again. In 2009, right after Barack Obama was elected President, Education Secretary Arne Duncan used over $4 billion of the public education dollars Congress had appropriated as part of a huge federal stimulus package and attached rules that made states adopt Duncan’s own pet programs in order to qualify for the money. Now Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration have distributed CARES Act dollars in a way that favors DeVos’s favorite charter schools and private schools at the expense of what she calls “government” schools—the ones our society counts on to serve 50 million of our children.
The Secretary of Education—and in the case of Payroll Protection Program dollars, the Small Business Administration—can control the distribution of education stimulus dollars, because dispersing relief money is administered by the administration without direct Congressional oversight unless prohibitions for particular practices are written into the enabling legislation.
You will remember that as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, Arne Duncan administered a $4.3 billion Race to the Top Program, a $3.5 billion School Improvement Grant program, and a $650 million Innovation Grant program. Duncan and the U.S. Department of Education conditioned these grants on getting states to change their own laws to adopt what were later recognized as the most controversial priorities of Arne Duncan’s Department of Education. To qualify for Race to the Top, for example, states had to promise to evaluate teachers based on students’ test scores, agree to controversial turnaround plans that included school closure and privatization, and adopt “college-and-career-ready” standards, which, in practice, meant they were agreeing to adopt what became the overly constrictive, unwieldy and expensive Common Core and accompanying tests. Underneath all of these programs was also a big change in the philosophy underneath federal education policy. Despite that races with winners always create losers, Duncan modeled his trademark education programs on the way philanthropies award funds: through competition. As the Department of Education diverted some Title I funds into competitive programs rather than simply awarding them through the Title I Formula, which is designed to supplement state and local funding for public schools serving concentrations of poor children, the Duncan programs enhanced education only for the children in the winning states and school districts.
Now Betsy DeVos has set out to divert some of the CARES Act relief funding, passed by Congress last March, to support privately operated charter schools and private schools instead of the public schools tor which most of the funds were intended by Congress. Public schools need federal stimulus relief to compensate for big budget cuts in state school funding as state budgets collapsed in the COVID-19 recession, and public schools need to make all sorts of expensive adjustments to ensure safety during the pandemic. But all over the country charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated were allowed to take advantage of their public/private status and take CARES Act Payroll Protection Program (PPP) dollars awarded through the Small Business Administration and intended to help small businesses maintain employment. The Network for Public Education recently reported: “The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools informed its members via email in March that it had successfully lobbied for charter schools to receive PPP funds and provided instructions on how much funding could be obtained.” “More than 1,300 charter schools and their nonprofit or for-profits and management companies secured between $925 million and $2.2 billion through PPP.”
In addition, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos created guidance that redirects a disproportionate amount of a school district’s CARES Act public school relief assistance to the private schools located within the geographic boundary of the school district. Congress distributed CARES Act education aid through the Title I Formula—which targets assistance to school districts with concentrations of poor children and ALSO provides that a school district will provide Title I services to impoverished students attending the private schools located within the district boundaries. However, DeVos set up CARES Act guidance to insist that the private schools would receive a portion of the CARES Act dollars proportional not just for the poor students enrolled in a private school, but instead for the private school’s full enrollment.
All this is, of course, extremely worrisome, because billions of CARES Act dollars needed in America’s public schools right now have found their way into charter schools, charter management organizations, and private schools. But there is an important difference in the way Arne Duncan was able to manipulate states to adopt his policies and what is currently happening.
Betsy DeVos has not been able to create the political to leverage to promote her policies in a way that they will survive her tenure. Most of us hope Betsy DeVos’s effort to use CARES Act dollars to support charter schools and private schools is her final push, her final personal opportunity to expand and support privatized schooling at public expense. When, in 2009, Arne Duncan used federal stimulus to set up Race to the Top and his other grant competitions, he had just been appointed. He served as education secretary until December of 2015, when Congress finally got fed up with his top down intervention in the nation’s public schools and when his policies and the No Child Left Behind policies on which they were based had begun falling out of favor. Duncan’s signature strategy during his six year tenure was basically to use federal grants to bribe states to embed his pet programs into their own laws, a strategy which gave his programs lasting power because rescinding them would require action by each of the state legislatures which had adopted Duncan’s policies. For example, some states are still evaluating teachers by their students’ standardized test scores, even though the American Statistical Association and the American Educational Research Association have shown students’ test scores are invalid and unreliable for evaluating teachers.
If President Trump is re-elected and Betsy DeVos is re-appointed as education secretary, all bets are off.
But—and I’ll admit it is still a long time until November—I believe it looks increasingly unlikely that DeVos will be our education secretary beginning in 2021. Further, there is no evidence that Congress has bought into her policies and no evidence that, apart from diverting CARES Act dollars and making annual startup and expansion grants to particular charter schools and chains of charter schools under the 25-year-old federal Charter Schools Program, she has been able to inject her own favorite policies across the states. For four years President Trump has included her $5 billion Opportunity Scholarship tuition tax credit idea in the President’s proposed federal budget, and every year Congress has ignored the request.
If Joe Biden is elected in November, I believe we can look forward to an abrupt reversal of education policy. Biden will work to get the pandemic under control; then he will prioritize supporting the safe opening of public schools. He has also pledged to address what COVID-19 has shown us is the greatest challenge for our nation’s children: extreme inequality.
Joe Biden’s Education Plan prioritizes equity in the public schools: “There’s an estimated $23 billion annual funding gap between white and non-white school districts today, and gaps persist between high and low-income districts as well. Biden will work to close this gap by nearly tripling Title I funding, which goes to schools serving a high number of children from low-income families. This new funding will be used to ensure teachers at Title I schools are paid competitively, three- and four-year olds have access to preschool, and districts provide access to rigorous coursework across all their schools, not just a few.” Biden’s plan notes that the average public school teacher’s salary hasn’t increased since 1996, and he pledges to ensure that teachers receive wages competitive with salaries of other professionals. Over ten years, Biden pledges to provide federal funding to cover 40 percent of the cost of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a promise Congress made when the law was passed but a promise that has never been fulfilled. Currently Congress covers only just over 14 percent of the cost. Biden would expand full service, wraparound Community Schools with medical and social services located in the school building.
Last week, when American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten addressed a virtual AFT biennial convention, she bragged about Biden’s agenda for public education: “Imagine a world with: universal pre-K; debt forgiveness for educators; triple Title I funding, expanded Community Schools; supports for kids with special needs; high-stakes testing thrown out the window; charter school accountability; public colleges and universities tuition-free for families who earn less than $125,000. That’s not from an AFT resolution. That’s straight from the Democratic Party platform, born out of the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force recommendations we helped draft.”
Joe Biden’s education plan differs radically from Betsy DeVos’s priorities. Biden, whose education plan aims to strengthen our nation’s 98,000 traditional public schools, supports neither expanding privately operated charter schools nor diverting money out of public school budgets to pay for private school vouchers or tuition tax credit programs. Although Betsy DeVos may have used the CARES Act to reward privatized charter schools and private schools and although she may try the same tricks in the rules for distributing any further stimulus dollars, I am increasingly hopeful that Betsy DeVos will be replaced next winter, and a new administration will be far more attentive to addressing the urgent needs in the nation’s public schools.