COVID-19 Microgrants Divert Urgently Needed Public Dollars to Fund Private Education

Despite the clarion call for more resources for our public schools, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has renewed efforts to spend scarce public funds on private education.

This month, the U.S Department of Education (USED) released details of the “microgrant” program that Secretary DeVos first announced at one of President Trump’s coronavirus press conferences. These microgrants, which will be funded by the federal government through competitive grants to states, are defined as accounts established for parents that send funds directly to service providers in order to “expand educational choice.”

But microgrants are just private school vouchers by another name. According to the USED, microgrant funds can be used to pay tuition and fees for private courses, programs, and educational services, as well as other private education expenses like textbooks and instructional materials, computer hardware and software, and services for students with disabilities. The program guidelines mandate that options for parents must include “nongovernment service providers.”

The USED will make over $180 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds available for states that submit applications for grants in one of three categories: microgrant vouchers, course access programs or statewide virtual schools, or their own educational strategies related to virtual learning.

But states should refrain from participating in voucher programs that divert critically needed dollars from public schools during this national emergency. Moreover, we urge governors and other state education leaders to reject DeVos’ latest plans for private school vouchers and instead call on the federal government to redirect funds to critically needed resources in the nation’s public schools.

School closures across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic have demonstrated one unassailable fact: public schools are the centerpieces of our communities. The importance of equitable educational opportunities has never been more apparent than now as families,educators and school staff, advocates, and community members struggle to keep students safe and nourished while attempting to minimize learning loss.

The folly in diverting public education resources to private school vouchers has also been made clear. Public schools are already under-resourced, challenging their ability to address significant inequalities in the communities they serve. Even during school closures, public schools continue providing meals and educational services to students. Educators, counselors, and other school staff are working to meet the needs of students who face significant obstacles, including low-income children, children of color, children with disabilities, children who are learning English, children experiencing homelessness, and LGBTQ children. Adequate resources are key to public schools’ ability to fully meet the needs of all students.

Some states still have not restored school funding to levels reached before the 2008 Great Recession, and many states’ public education systems are chronically underfunded. Funding for schools provided in the CARES Act is woefully insufficient if states are to meet the needs of their students during the pandemic. Voucher programs that divert public resources – often taken directly from public education budgets – to private schools and other private education uses strip public schools of the public dollars they need to educate and support all students.

Study after study has found that students using private school vouchers do not experience improved academic outcomes and often fare worse academically than their public school peers. And because private school students often do not enjoy the same legal protections that apply in public schools, shifting resources to vouchers would increase the potential for discrimination and worsen the educational inequities this pandemic has laid bare.

State leaders: reject Secretary DeVos’s privatization schemes, including microgrants that are nothing more than private education vouchers. Champion public education, and resource it so that every child in your state can have an equitable opportunity to learn now and in the difficult months ahead. Demand more federal aid for your state’s public schools. And help the Trump Administration learn an important lesson during the COVID-19 pandemic: public funds belong in public schools.

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