Betsy DeVos Is Looting Public Schools | Opinion

Sourced from: Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding

When it comes to teaching our kids, the federal government holds a limited but critical role: to make sure low-income and under-represented students see equal opportunities to learn and grow. This work has become even more crucial as the coronavirus menaces our national health and economy, imposing its sharpest toll on the communities least able to bounce back.

So it's especially galling that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is seizing this global crisis to accelerate her privatization agenda for public education. Her directives for federal relief funding aren't just ideological—they abandon our national commitment to provide for communities in dire need, right when they need that support the most.

DeVos made her intentions plain last month, when she directed public schools to share with private and religious schools more of the funding available to them through the CARES Act. The idea behind this money is to shore up public school budgets during the pandemic.

Typically, federal policy would require that these funds go to public school districts based on the numbers of low-income students in their respective enrollment areas. But DeVos' guidance indicates the money should be shared based on the enrollment "of all students—public and non-public—without regard to poverty, low achievement, or residence in a participating Title I [federal aid for low-income students] public school attendance area."

In a May 22 letter to the Council of Chief State School Officers, DeVos called the CARES Act a special appropriation "to benefit all American students, teachers, and families."

While supporting all American school students is certainly important, we must recognize that some students need more support than others. DeVos' stance flies in the face of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which together frame the secretary's job.

ESSA includes Title I, the provision to help economically and historically marginalized children reach academic parity with more advantaged peers, and Title III, which centers on English-language learners. IDEA ensures the education of special-education students.

These laws outline the requirements for schools, both public and private, to receive federal funding. The secretary's function is primarily to make sure that federal spending is consistent with the law. Offering federal tax money to students in private schools is reasonable only if school-age children attending public and private schools have similar educational challenges and needs.

If only that were true.

In fact, figures from the National Center for Education Statistics lay bare profound differences that separate children in public and private schools. Among students in public schools, 18 percent live in poverty, 26 percent are what the federal government calls "near-poor" and 56 percent are "non-poor," according to a 2019 report. In private schools, only 8 percent live in poverty, 13 percent are "near-poor" and 79 percent are "non-poor."

Earlier, in 2017-18, a report from the center noted 12.7 percent of students at public schools were in special education—nearly twice the percentage reported at private schools (7.6 percent). The percentage of public school students who were English-language learners was nearly three times the proportion seen in private schools (10.5 percent versus 2.6 percent).

The financial implications of these discrepancies are stark. Educating students with special needs and language differences—two of the fastest-growing populations among school-age children—is significantly more expensive than educating students without these additional challenges.

As the pandemic produces destructive economic conditions for schools across the nation, we must have a secretary of education firmly grounded in the laws and policies that guide the Department of Education. DeVos' response to the pandemic provides more evidence that she wants to undermine the public schools, which serve 90 percent of the school-age population, by advancing a form of privatized education disconnected from the common good.

We need a better secretary, one who is committed to equality of educational opportunity. Consistent with over 50 years of federal legislative policy, CARES Act money should go to those who need it most—our students in public schools.

Abe Feuerstein and Sue Ellen Henry are professors of education at Bucknell University. Feuerstein also is the education department chair at the university.

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