The pandemic doesn’t discriminate; neither should federal education aid

Criticism of administration plans to help private and religious schools is off base. All students need assistance in this crisis.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaking at the U.S. Department of Justice Summit on Combating Anti-Semitism on July 15, 2019. Credit: DOJ.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaking at the U.S. Department of Justice Summit on Combating Anti-Semitism on July 15, 2019. Credit: DOJ.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

As far as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s critics are concerned, she’s done it again.

DeVos might be the most popular target for abuse of anyone in President Donald Trump’s cabinet, which is no mean feat, and is widely dismissed by most of the mainstream media as a wealthy dilettante who has no idea what she’s doing. Except, that is, when she is blasted as a crafty foe of church-state separation for pursuing efforts to promote school-choice programs that are bitterly opposed by teachers unions and liberal ideologues.

That’s the current line about DeVos being put forward by administration critics who are outraged about the way she is administering the money allocated to schools by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed by Congress in March. The $2 trillion bill set aside $30 billion for elementary, secondary and higher-education institutions that have been shut down by the pandemic.

The impact of the lockdowns has created havoc across the board, but schools are especially hard-hit. Above and beyond the impact of the last two months when they were closed, the expenses involved in reopening and implementing social-distancing measures when they do get the government’s permission to reopen will exacerbate the financial burden they are facing.

Accordingly, DeVos has seen to the distribution of funds in such a way as to give the country’s private and parochial schools their fair share of the money. In a statement defending its actions, the Education Department pointed out that every teacher and student in the country had suffered as a result of school closures. Democrats who say she should have used a formula that would have vastly diminished the amounts that non-public schools could have received have criticized that.

Institutions not fully funded by the government are in a particularly tough spot. The collapse of the economy has had a devastating impact on the ability of parents to pay tuition, as well as on the charitable contributions that allow such institutions to survive and serve students from families on scholarships. Given the fact that private and religious schools provide the only option for kids in districts where parents need choices—as is often the case in urban areas where minority children are often trapped in failing schools—there is a compelling national interest in keeping them viable.

The Department of Education has also opened up the door to allow states to create “micro-grants” that parents can use to pay for educational services, including tuition. In a time of record unemployment with middle-class families now finding themselves in dire straits, this will allow kids to stay in the schools that are best-suited to their needs, regardless of their ability to pay.

But rather than cheer these policies, DeVos is under attack from Democrats who accuse her of distorting the meaning of the law in order to divert money from public to private schools. According to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, the education secretary is “exploiting congressional relief efforts.” Angry House Democrats included language in their latest stimulus package, which was dead on arrival in the Republican-run Senate, intended to prevent DeVos from sending relief to non-government-run schools.

Schumer can’t assert that DeVos’s actions are illegal. As Nathan Diament of the Orthodox Union noted in a letter to the editor published in The New York Times, his organization worked closely with Congress to ensure that non-public schools, including Catholic, Jewish and other religious institutions, were included in the emergency relief bill.

The public-school lobby and the politically powerful teachers’ unions that are allied to the Democrats believe that private schools shouldn’t get a dime of government money. This position is motivated partly by a belief in a high wall of separation between religion and state that would exclude religious schools from any state aid.

But giving parents a choice in the type of school their children attend does not “establish” any particular religion. To the contrary, “equitable” support for students in non-public schools has passed constitutional muster for generations.

To support only some students and schoolsand to declare that others must fend for themselves in the face of a pandemic that affects everyoneis neither fair nor good educational policy. The nation has a vested interest in the success of all educational institutions and not just those that are run by the government. Federal and state education aid should follow the students to wherever they learn and not be restricted only to the public-school sector.

There is also a practical side to DeVos’s approach that public-school advocates ignore. If, by denying them pandemic aid private and religious schools go under in the coming months, the burden of educating the children who will be affected would fall on a public system that in many places can barely cope with the size of their existing classrooms. But DeVos’s critics are indifferent to the welfare of poor children who want to escape the public system or to the survival of the schools that their parents have chosen.

DeVos is right to seek to broaden the meaning of what is meant by a public school to include all those institutions that serve the public. The notion that only public schools serve the national interest is both narrow-minded and oblivious to the failings of professionals who fear the competition afforded by the alternatives.

Many, if not most, Jews have always opposed school choice out of a foolish belief that helping parochial education is somehow a threat to their status as equal citizens. This is not only wrong in principle; such a position fails to realize just how important Jewish day schools are to the community.

But regardless of the ability of Jewish schools to survive this modern-day plague, families who seek private alternatives to public schools shouldn’t suffer discrimination. It is DeVos’s critics who should apologize for their pandemic policies, not the education secretary.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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