Betsy DeVos directs $500,000 from coronavirus relief to private college confused by some with cult

DeVos assigns relief funds earmarked by Congress for low-income students to wealthy private and religious schools

Published May 15, 2020 8:50PM (EDT)

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has directed millions in federal coronavirus relief funds earmarked by Congress for low-income students to wealthy private and religious schools, including nearly half a million dollars to an institute with a website devoted to proving it is not a cult.

The New York Times first reported Friday that DeVos, whose family net worth has been pegged at approximately $2 billion by Forbes, has stuck her hand into the $30 billion pot of federal relief funds to appropriate $180 million "to encourage states to create 'microgrants' that parents of elementary and secondary school students can use to pay for educational services, including private school tuition. She has directed school districts to share millions of dollars designated for low-income students with wealthy private schools."

The article added that "she has nearly depleted the funding set aside for struggling colleges to bolster small colleges — many of them private, religious or on the margins of higher education — regardless of need."

Of the $321,000,000 from that depleted fund, $19 million went to schools with "bible" or "Christian" in their name, and more than $50 million went to theological schools and seminaries, according to a Salon analysis of the allocations.

Fringe schools and low-population institutions will receive substantially higher per-student payout. For instance, the Dragon Rises College of Oriental Medicine, which hosts 49 students on campus, will get about $10,000 per student, while Northwest Missouri State University, with its 7,400 students, will receive $647.50 per student.

Delgado Community College, in the COVID-19 hotspot of New Orleans, will get $11.3 million in CARES Act funding, though that shakes out to only $550 per student.

Some schools considered themselves relatively secure despite the ongoing crisis and did not plan to claim the funds. Aaron D. Profitt, vice president for academic affairs at God's Bible School and College in Ohio, told The Times his school was making do with small donations.

"Of course, when you get a letter from the Department of Education giving you money, you start thinking about all the good things you can do," he said. "But when I read the CARES Act, the intention was not to do all the good things you could do but try to meet needs. We are trying to cooperate with the law as written."

Angela Morabito, press secretary for the Department of Education, pushed back on report in a statement to Salon.

"The NYT piece contains several inaccuracies, not the least of which is that the secretary is absolutely not favoring any one type of school over another," Morabito said of DeVos. "She is implementing the CARES Act as it was written, and the same advice still holds: If a school is wealthy enough not to need taxpayer dollars to help keep their students learning, we highly recommend that they do not draw down the funds."

Ben Miller, vice president with the Center for American Progress and former senior policy advisor at the Education Department, said DeVos had dipped into nearly all of a $350 million fund designated to help colleges floundering amid the pandemic fallout, rerouting it to private religious schools.

"Almost 90% of the country's special faith focused schools got extra money" from the fund, he wrote on Twitter.

For instance, the department redirected $495,000 to a private college called the "Wright Graduate University for the Realization of Human Potential," which has a website dedicated to reassuring the public that the school is not, in fact, a cult.

Wright enrolls 39 students, and its educational doctorate program in "Transformational Leadership & Coaching" costs $129,357, according to the Princeton Review. Wright appears to be the only school in existence that offers a doctorate of education in that field.

(The cult-debunking website address itself is misleading, conflating the Wright Graduate University for the Realization of Human Potential with the Wright Institute, a graduate school of psychology located in Berklee, Calif.)

The school did not claim the money that DeVos allocated to it, the Times reports.

At the same time, DeVos has joined a chorus of conservatives led by President Donald Trump, who upbraided elite private institutions with large endowments, such as Harvard and Princeton, for accepting their allotted relief funds.

"Schools with large endowments should not apply for funds so more can be given to students who need support the most," DeVos said in a statement. "It's also important for Congress to change the law to make sure no more taxpayer funds go to elite, wealthy institutions."

"Wealthy institutions that do not primarily serve low-income students do not need or deserve additional taxpayer funds," she added. "This is common sense."

House Democrats inserted language designed to block DeVos from personally interfering again in a new bill scheduled for a Friday vote, which would allocate about $58 billion in relief to K-12 school districts.

DeVos' mismanagement of the relief package has come under fire from academic insiders, bipartisan congressional representatives and jilted students. A recent lawsuit alleges that the secretary, who quietly banned DACA recipients from accessing emergency coronavirus relief student aid, also illegally seized wages from student loan borrowers amid the pandemic.

The secretary has long been a vocal advocate of "school choice." Couched in terms of private and charter schools, the phrase is broadly understood as a euphemism for religious and arguably segregationist education options. Congress has rejected her proposals to create trojan horse programs for private school vouchers, which critics claim to be an aegis for her ideological agenda.

By Roger Sollenberger

Roger Sollenberger was a staff writer at Salon (2020-21). Follow him on Twitter @SollenbergerRC.

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