By Amanda Menas
Students, parents, and educators are grappling with a global crisis, trying to stay safe, facing a new virtual reality and struggling to connect. Now more than ever, school communities across the nation need support and leadership. Instead, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is using this pandemic to, once again, push her failed privatization agenda to defund public schools.
DeVos’ actions confirm what educators already know about where her priorities lie–with the privatization movement. Despite the urgent need for resources among public schools, DeVos’ Department of Education has been slow in dispersing tens of billions of dollars approved by Congress from getting into the hands of educators, governors, and superintendents to help close quickly emerging budget gaps. She would rather divert funding from public schools to pay for her vouchers, further hurting our most vulnerable students.
Here are seven ways DeVos has been missing during the COVID-19 outbreak:
She is using the COVID-19 crisis to push her radical voucher scheme
Time and again, Republicans and Democrats in Congress have rejected DeVos’s voucher proposals. But that hasn’t stopped her from trying to use the COVID crisis to push another radical voucher scheme that would siphon funding from public schools to direct it to private schools. NEA President Lily Eskelsen García put it best: “Simply put, Betsy DeVos is tone-deaf. American families are struggling to pay their bills as unemployment claims skyrocket. And while public school teachers and other educators are doing their best to meet the needs of students and showing why they are daily heroes, DeVos is raising the specter of her failed agenda.”
She has failed to protect our Education Support Professionals
DeVos has failed to advocate for even the most basic personal protective equipment (PPE) for ESPs and other school staff who continue to interact with students and their families. This group of everyday heroes includes food service workers who prepare and distribute meals, custodians who clean and disinfect buildings, security officers, and technology specialists. Additional training and guidance on how to mitigate transmission of the coronavirus for teachers, ESPs, and other school staff should be coming from DeVos’ Department of Education, but it is not.
Educators are frontline workers. That’s why NEA is asking Congress to provide at least $56 million for PPE for educators. We are also asking The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to craft emergency standards to help protect our educators and healthcare professionals who are at risk of contracting the virus.
She harms immigrant students
DeVos was at the center of a heartless decision to target undocumented college students by restricting who can access federal emergency assistance. The funding, which can be used to cover food, childcare, and housing during this crisis, is not restricted to any group in the law itself. DeVos and the Department of Education specifically chose to bar students who do not already qualify for federal financial aid in yet another act in this administration’s continued policies of division, xenophobia and scapegoating of immigrants.
She is silent on closing the homework gap
Due to school closures across the country, 8 million to 12 million K-12 students are at risk of falling behind their peers because they don’t have access to necessary learning resources like high-speed internet, computers, or tablets at home. This lack of equity disproportionately affects students of color and rural areas. Yet, DeVos was silent as Congress debated efforts in the latest stimulus bill to close the gap and protect students, doing nothing to ensure all students have equal opportunity to learn. To address this issue, NEA is asking Congress to appropriate $2 billion for the successful E-Rate program, administered by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), to help schools procure and distribute Wi-Fi hotspots and connected devices to K-12 students who don’t have them at home.
She has held up state funding
In the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act signed into law on March 27, 2020, nearly $30 billion is allocated for states to spend on education needs deemed necessary. It is DeVos’ responsibility to disburse that funding (of which $3 billion will go directly into the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund) and notify states how and when it will be sent. To date, DeVos has been far too slow in making sure those funds are actually reaching those who urgently need them. Governors say the funding is a lifeline during a time of “unprecedented uncertainty.” In a letter to DeVos, the National Governors Association explained: “States need time to establish both structures to evaluate student needs and processes to rapidly deploy these funds. That work cannot begin until the department provides guidance about how and when it will send funding to the states.”
She is prioritizing for-profit colleges
The Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund was funded at $14 billion through the CARES Act to aid colleges and universities struggling under the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. The Department of Education has the authority to grant these funds to higher education institutions across the country. So far, less than one percent of funding earmarked for emergency financial aid for college students has been distributed. Senate Democrats sent a letter to DeVos urging her to focus the funding on public and non-profit institutions and to ensure that the funding that does reach for-profit colleges and universities is disbursed equitably and transparently.
Groups funded by the DeVos family are funding astroturf protests to prematurely and unsafely end social distancing
Far-right groups in Michigan staging dramatic protests of the governor’s stay-at-home orders have been linked to the DeVos family. Some protesters have carried signs comparing the governor to Hitler, carried Confederate flags, and brandished weapons. Gov. Whitmer said, “I think it’s really inappropriate for a sitting member of the United States president’s cabinet to be waging political attacks on any governor,” referring to the education secretary. Thousands attended a rally in Lansing on April 15, most without masks and ignoring social-distancing measures, despite the fact that Michigan has well over 30,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19.