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US Public Schools Must Share COVID-19 Aid With Private Schools

Des Moines Public School employee Sam Teah sanitizes a desk in a classroom at Central Campus high school in Des Moines, Iowa, March 19, 2020.

A new policy ordering U.S. public schools to share emergency COVID-19 relief funds with private schools regardless of their wealth will take effect immediately, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said, despite opposition from many public education supporters.

"The CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) is a special, pandemic-related appropriation to benefit all American students, teachers and families impacted by coronavirus," DeVos said. "There is nothing in the law Congress passed that would allow districts to discriminate against children and teachers based on private school attendance and employment."

FILE - Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks in the James Brady Press Briefing Room, March 27, 2020, in Washington.
FILE - Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks in the James Brady Press Briefing Room, March 27, 2020, in Washington.

DeVos said she expects most of the emergency funds to go toward building cleaning, equipment to protect the health of students and teachers, and virtual classroom training for teachers.

She said the department will discourage what she calls "financially secure private schools" from seeking such help.

"Most private schools serving low- and middle-income communities are under great financial strain due to COVID-19 because they are typically dependent on tuition from families and donations from their communities. … More than 100 private schools have already announced they will not be able to reopen following the pandemic, and hundreds more are facing a similar fate," DeVos said.

Under the new rule, private schools would be eligible for the aid based on their total enrollment.

But some U.S. public school officials say it should instead be based on the number of low-income students in private schools – the same policy in other federal rules for aiding schools passed by Congress. Under the DeVos plan, the money allocated for private schools would be at a higher rate than what federal law usually requires.

"The Department should be providing clear leadership and guidance to help students, parents, and school districts cope with the impact of the pandemic. Instead, it has issued another confusing directive that will undermine efforts to maintain access to education during this pandemic. I urge the Secretary to withdraw this rule and follow the law that Congress enacted," Democratic Congressman Bobby Scott of Virginia said Thursday.

DeVos, who is known as a champion of private schools, said all kinds of schools hit hard by the coronavirus outbreak deserve relief.