Given her history, it’s unsurprising that U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos tried to use the pandemic to coddle wealthy private schools at the expense of public school children by unilaterally altering the standard school funding formula in disbursing pandemic relief funds. Thankfully, a federal judge this month stopped her. But the episode highlights, once again, the question of why this determined enemy of public education continues to serve in America’s top education post.
DeVos is a wealthy Republican donor whose lack of experience in public education has been an issue since her contentious Senate confirmation in early 2017. What DeVos has mainly brought to the table is her affinity for private schools and colleges — including scam-prone, for-profit operations and fringe institutions — often at the expense of the public school and university kids who her department is primarily supposed to look out for.
She has made it harder for students to get debt relief even if they were taken advantage of by unscrupulous schools, and easier for religious schools to discriminate against gay, lesbian and transgender students. She typically comes down on the side of the monied and powerful and against vulnerable kids and families.
That pattern persisted this year regarding extra money appropriated for schools and colleges to address fallout from the pandemic. In the rush to approve the funds, Congress didn’t build in strict guidelines on how it was to be used. Given that lack of specificity, the clearly proper approach would have been to distribute it based on the rules already in place for divvying such funding between public and private school students. Such funds are typically shared with private schools based on the number of low-income students enrolled in them. But DeVos took it upon herself to change that standard to favor — who else? — the rich. Her self-created new rule steered tax funds to private schools based not on low-income enrollment but on total enrollment, irrespective of how many of those kids were from wealthy families.
U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich, an appointee of President Donald Trump, ruled on Sept. 4 that DeVos had no authority to take it upon herself to thwart the will of Congress, effectively coddling private schools at the expense of public ones. That ruling applies nationally and should be the final word on the subject (assuming the administration doesn’t just ignore the ruling, as it has in other instances lately).
DeVos has repeatedly demonstrated that she’ll find any avenue she can to divert public money from public schools to private ones, going around Congress to do it. This shouldn’t be a partisan issue. If congressional Republicans still claim to be the party of fiscal responsibility, they should be confronting this rogue education secretary at least as strongly as Democrats are.
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