Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos admitted that she was trying to use the ongoing coronavirus crisis to push through her private school choice agenda during a Tuesday radio interview.
DeVos made the comments during an interview with Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, on his Sirius XM show. The interview was first flagged by the nonprofit education news outlet Chalkbeat.
Dolan asked the secretary whether she was trying to "utilize this particular crisis to ensure that justice is finally done to our kids and the parents who choose to send them to faith-based schools."
"Am I correct in understanding what your agenda is?" he asked.
"Yes, absolutely," DeVos replied. "For more than three decades, that has been something that I've been passionate about. This whole pandemic has brought into clear focus that everyone has been impacted, and we shouldn't be thinking about students that are in public schools versus private schools."
Department of Education spokeswoman Angela Morabito said in a statement to Chalkbeat that DeVos "is helping Catholic schools just as she is helping all schools; this does not mean she is favoring any one type of school over another."
"There is no question that this crisis has impacted all students — no matter what kind of school they're enrolled in," she added.
DeVos' comments came as she defended her decision to redirect coronavirus relief funds away from public schools with high numbers of impoverished students to private schools which tend to serve wealthy students. Congress allocated about $13.5 billion to help schools, most of which was intended to go to schools based on a formula that determines how many poor children they serve.
The formula has long allocated some of the funding for poor children who attend private schools, The Washington Post reported. But DeVos said states should calculate how many total students private schools serve rather than just the number of poor students. As a result, millions in aid will be redirected away from schools with high poverty rates to private schools which may not have many poor students.
The move drew criticism from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
"My sense was that the money should have been distributed in the same way we distribute Title I money," Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate Education Committee who is typically a DeVos ally, told reporters Wednesday. "I think that's what most of Congress was expecting."
Democrats also decried the decision.
"[The guidance] seeks to repurpose hundreds-of-millions of taxpayer dollars intended for public school students to provide services for private school students, in contravention of both the plain reading of the statute and the intent of Congress," House Education Chairman Bobby Scott, D-Va., House Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Rosa DeLaura, D-Ct., and Senate Education ranking member Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a letter to DeVos on Tuesday.
"Given that the guidance contradicts the clear requirements of the CARES Act, it will cause confusion among states and local education agencies that will be uncertain of how to comply with both the department's guidance and the plain language of the CARES Act," the lawmakers urged, asking her to "immediately revise" the guidance.
But DeVos defended the decision Thursday to reporters.
"It's our interpretation that [the funding] is meant literally for all students, and that includes students no matter where they're learning," she said.
The Democrats' warning has proven right, however, as states are already dealing with confusion sparked by the policy.
The Education Law Center said DeVos' policy was a "patent misreading" of the federal law and could redirect $800,000 in aid from Newark Public Schools in New Jersey to private school students. Tennessee's education chief said she plans to follow DeVos' guidance, but other school leaders argue that it is not legally binding and should be ignored.
Indiana's schools chief Jennifer McCormick said that the state would ignore the guidance after consulting with the state's attorney general.
"I will not play political agenda games with relief funds," she said.
Scott told NPR that "there is rightfully pushback" on the decision.
"The actions of the Department of Education have left states and districts stuck between compliance with the law," he said, "and adhering to ideologically motivated guidance."