Trump opens up federal dollars for private school vouchers amid pandemic

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President Donald Trump on Monday signed an executive order allowing states to use their share of money from a federal anti-poverty program to provide vouchers to help “disadvantaged families” pay for private school tuition, homeschooling or other educational expenses during the pandemic.

The move comes after the $900 billion coronavirus relief deal, H.R. 133 (116), that Trump signed on Sunday excluded many of the school choice provisions that his administration and GOP lawmakers had sought to include in that sweeping legislation.

The White House said that the order would give states new flexibility in how they use federal block grant programs that provide money for a wide range of community services designed to alleviate poverty and help low-income Americans. It will “provide certain disadvantaged children with emergency K-12 scholarships to access in-person learning opportunities,” the administration said.

The order opens up federal money provided to states under the Community Services Block Grant program — a roughly $700 million-a-year program administered by the Department of Health and Human Services — to pay for “private school tuition, home schooling, micro schooling, learning-pod expenses, special education services, or tutoring.”

The executive action helps to advance the Trump administration’s school choice agenda in its waning days in office. Politico reported in November that the executive action was among a flurry of moves that the White House has planned for its final weeks even as Trump refused to concede the election to President-elect Joe Biden.

Key context: Using public money for private school tuition has long been a non-starter for most Democrats and teachers unions who view such policies as a privatization of the nation’s public schools. The only federally funded school voucher program is in the District of Columbia, which receives tens of millions of dollars a year from Congress to pay for it.

Biden has vowed to reopen most schools in the first 100 days of his administration by providing more funding for school districts to implement coronavirus safety measures, such as better ventilation and more socially distanced classrooms. His team is also weighing a multibillion dollar plan to test students, teachers and staff at least once a week.

Trump administration officials, meanwhile, have proposed that more funding flow to parents to allow them to pick private alternatives to public schools during the pandemic.

HHS Secretary Alex Azar said that Trump’s executive order would “help children and families without access to in-person schooling to secure it with scholarships and other funding mechanisms for private options where public options are not available.”

“We know that in-person learning is essential to children’s flourishing, especially for vulnerable children, and that it can be done safely,” Azar said in a statement. “We can defeat this pandemic and support healthy futures for our children at the same time.”

States are required to submit plans to HHS on how they plan to use their share of the Community Services Block Grant funding. The vast majority of the funding must be passed along to local community organizations, typically nonprofits, that provide a range of services, such as helping low-income people or vulnerable populations with employment, housing, education and food.

The executive order requires HHS to take actions that allow money in the program to be used by “eligible entities” to provide the “emergency learning scholarships to disadvantaged families.” Spokespeople for the White House and HHS declined to provide any additional details about how the executive order would be implemented.

Change in tune: The anti-poverty funding stream that the Trump administration is now using to accelerate its school choice position is one that it has repeatedly proposed to eliminate completely. Trump’s budget requests to Congress have called for zeroing out funding for the block grant program, criticizing it as poorly targeted and duplicative of other federal programs. But congressional appropriators have ignored that proposal.

In March, Congress kicked in an extra $1 billion for the program in the CARES Act, bringing its total funding for the 2020 fiscal year to $1.7 billion. And the omnibus government funding bill that was combined with the coronavirus relief measure Trump signed on Sunday allocates another $775 million for the program for the current 2021 fiscal year.

Trump officials, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, have repeatedly slammed the closure of schools during the pandemic and have argued that the situation bolsters their longstanding belief that parents should be provided the resources to select the educational option that is best for their child.

Previous plans thwarted: But previous efforts by the Trump administration to boost alternatives to traditional public schools during the pandemic have been unsuccessful, thwarted by legal challenges and Congress.

DeVos in September abandoned her effort to force public schools to share a greater portion of their federal pandemic funding with private school students after a Trump-appointed judge struck down her plan as illegal.

In Congress, Democrats and Republicans sparred for months this year as they negotiated coronavirus relief proposals and how they should address money for students at private schools.

DeVos on Monday criticized the bipartisan Covid relief package that Trump signed for failing to include her proposal to allocate billions of dollars in emergency school vouchers to families and create a new federal tax credit to promote scholarships to help families pay for private schools and home-schooling.

“Without that provision, students whose parents can no longer afford tuition at their private school, whose private school was forced to close, or who remain at the mercy of their closed government school are left behind once again,” DeVos said in a statement.

GOP pandemic relief proposals, including those released by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell over the summer, would have created an emergency federally funded voucher program to help families pay for private school tuition during the pandemic as well as included DeVos’ school choice tax credit. But neither made it in the final legislation.

What’s next: The new coronavirus relief law sets aside $2.75 billion for services at private schools. But it includes significant restrictions on how that money can be used, prohibiting it from supporting religious instruction or going toward scholarships for private school tuition, for instance.

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