The pandemic has shown how the Trump administration is committed to funneling taxpayer dollars away from public schools to private schools.
Viewers heard a lot about “school choice” on the first night of the Republican National Convention. While having more choices might sound nice, the coronavirus pandemic has shown that “school choice” often means private schools getting more money from the federal government than public schools.
Republicans have long supported sending taxpayer dollars to private schools, even though public schools often don’t have enough money, especially in low-income areas. When families opt for private schools using Republican-backed “vouchers,” they are taking money away from the public school, setting off a vicious cycle of losing students and funding. And less funding ultimately means fewer resources like books, extra curriculars, and even teachers.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, both public and private schools have struggled to maintain their staff, as normal funding streams have been altered or cut off altogether. Experts predict that the coming years won’t be any easier, either. In the latest round of coronavirus relief funding, Senate Democrats proposed $175 billion for K-12 schools. Senate Republicans offered only $70 billion.
In earlier relief packages, schools received federal funding designed to blunt the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. However, reports have shown that funding has been distributed unevenly. For instance, some school advocates say private schools have been allowed to “double-dip” in available funding by taking advantage of PPP loans while also getting school funding. In contrast, public schools could not take PPP loans and had to rely solely on the school funds.
Guidelines from Secretary of Education Betsy Devos also pushed a disproportionate amount of money to private schools over public schools. Instead of basing how much funding a school received on how many low-income students it serves, DeVos implemented guidelines to send money based on the total number of students.
For students like Stephanie Mount, who is studying to be a pharmacy tech in North Carolina, these guidelines meant students had to get creative to make ends meet.
“I wasn’t not going to finish school,” Mount said in an interview with Cardinal & Pine, Courier Newsroom’s sister publication in North Carolina. “School’s always been my first priority.”
Cardinal & Pine’s review of federal grants found that funding went more towards for-profit cosmetology schools and private schools than public schools with economically disadvantaged students.
For K-12 public schools, sharing the federal funding with private schools chipped away at their ability to provide desperately-needed supplies to help a school year like no other. That meant forking over money for distance learning tools like computers, tablets, and more accessible internet that some students can’t afford. Not to mention the added cost of supplying teachers who are teaching in-person with personal protective equipment.
In response to the controversial guidelines a federal judge in Washington State temporarily blocked Devos from enforcing her rules. On August 21, U.S. District Judge Barbara J. Rothstein issued an injunction and chastised the Education Department for claiming that states wouldn’t suffer irreparable damage if they were forced to implement the rule.
“The department claim that the state faces only an economic injury, which ordinarily does not qualify as irreparable harm, is remarkably callous, and blind to the realities of this extraordinary pandemic and the very purpose of the Cares Act: to provide emergency relief where it is most needed,” Rothstein wrote.
As students head back to school in a variety of different ways across the country the Brookings Institute has advocated for flexible federal funding. Depending on the local environment, school reopening looks different district to district.
“Schools can and should only open for in-person instruction when the local public health situation permits, so Congress should avoid bogging down stabilization aid with ill-advised strings,” they wrote.
By providing funding to schools that will allow them to address their own needs without strict guidelines in place, Brookings says, public schools could avoid deep cuts to their staff and other cutbacks.
“The most important thing that Congress can do now is to act quickly and provide enough money so that all schools can provide instruction in whatever form is most appropriate for their local circumstances,” Brookings wrote. “Whether adopting social distancing protocols for live instruction or developing remote-learning offerings, all schools will face new costs this school year that, without federal support, will undermine their ability to provide a quality education.”