WASHINGTON — Sen. Lamar Alexander is pushing Congress to underwrite private school tuition as part of its response to the COVID-19 pandemic —-one of his final acts as the Tennessee Republican heads for retirement from Congress.
Alexander, the powerful chairman of the Senate panel that oversees education policy, is a leader in a growing drive by the GOP to direct some federal relief toward private schools in the next pandemic package. But Republicans are being met with intense opposition from teachers unions, state school superintendents and civil rights groups who say it would deprive public schools of aid they need to keep kids and educators safe.
Alexander, who’s also a former governor, U.S. secretary of education and president of the University of Tennessee, co-sponsored the “School Choice Now Act” this summer with South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott. Alexander wants the school choice proposal wrapped into the next coronavirus relief bill, according to an aide. Talks on that pandemic bill remain stalled but could resume once Congress returns from recess this month, and Senate Republicans are expected to vote on a slimmed-down alternative as soon as next week.
The Alexander measure would repurpose 10% of the emergency relief funding already sent to states for “one time” aid that families could use for private school tuition or home-schooling expenses. Alexander would also create a permanent scholarship program with tax credits, a proposal long sought by school-choice advocates that’s failed to gain much traction in Congress.
“Many schools are choosing not to reopen and many schools are failing to provide high-quality distance learning. The students who will suffer from this experience the most are the children from lower income families,” Alexander said in a statement. “This bill will give families more options for their children’s education at a time that school is more important than ever.”
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos supported the proposal, saying in a tweet that it “must be part of any relief package.”
School choice advocates have pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic’s upheaval of education as a reason to support options outside the public school system. The Center for Education Reform recommends lawmakers include funding for private schools in any relief project and let money “follow the child,” so parents could use it for private schools, tutors, or learning pods.
President Donald Trump repeatedly has strongly advocated reopening schools for in-person learning and endorsed Alexander’s legislation. DeVos repeated that endorsement in a “letter to parents” on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, public school officials say they need all the funds they can get, as state budgets face shortfalls and schools have even greater need for counselors, intervention teachers, technology and cleaning supplies.
“Public schools are already under-resourced—that has been magnified and exacerbated by the coronavirus,” said Beth Brown, president of the Tennessee Education Association.
“Before we start diverting funds from public to private, can we make sure public schools have what they need to adequately meet the social, emotional, academic and physical needs of the majority of Tennessee students learning in a public school setting?”
Tennessee’s more than 1,700 public schools are responsible for providing education to nearly 1 million schoolchildren.
Each of Tennessee’s school districts has come up with its own reopening plans and quarantine policies for employees. The two largest school districts, in Shelby County and Metro Nashville, started school virtually. Many other districts opened with hybrid models.
A ‘private school agenda’?
DeVos already tried to send coronavirus aid to private schools—a move that sparked outrage and legal challenges from Democrats and public school advocates.
The first congressional coronavirus relief package included $13.2 billion for K-12 education, much of which Congress said should go to areas with greater at-risk student populations. But the Education Department issued rules that allowed private schools to benefit from a larger share of the funds than they usually would receive under federal education law, amounting to millions of dollars in some districts.
That prompted a lawsuit from the NAACP, contending the rule “is as immoral as it is illegal.” Several state attorneys general also have sued, including Michigan, Pennsylvania, Maine and Wisconsin, and a federal judge granted a preliminary injunction.
Scott Sargrad, who works on education policy for the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress, said the effort is part of the Trump administration’s broader push for programs like school vouchers and education savings accounts for private schools.
“This is another example of DeVos’ private school agenda and takes advantage of the COVID crisis to funnel money into private schools,” said Sargrad.
Alexander’s school choice bill sets up “emergency appropriations” to give scholarship grants, but it would be unlikely to open new school opportunities for families this year. Most states would have to develop scholarship-granting organizations. But the language could open pathways for school choice programs in states for the future.
The bill has seven Senate co-sponsors, all Republicans, including Kelly Loeffler of Georgia and Marco Rubio of Florida. Similar legislation in the House has 110 Republican co-sponsors.
Whether Congress will pass any large education package is uncertain, given the deeply divergent opinions on what direction it should take. Education policy groups have asked for sweeping proposals, but say lawmakers may end up settling on a narrow approach with few policy changes and smaller bailout funds.
The Senate Republicans’ HEALS Act from earlier this year includes part of the school choice proposal and ties aid to schools reopening. Senate Democrats have a completely different proposal with $175 billion for K-12 education, virtually or in person. House Democrats included $90 billion for education in the HEROES Act they approved in May.
Before we start diverting funds from public to private, can we make sure public schools have what they need to adequately meet the social, emotional academic and physical needs of the majority of Tennessee students learning in a public school setting?
– Beth Brown, president, Tennessee Education Association
The NAACP, National PTA, American Federation of Teachers and other groups signed onto a letter asking lawmakers to reject the HEALS Act and other legislation that would send money to private schools.
Tennessee’s school choice debate
A similar debate is underway on the state level in Tennessee, where Gov. Bill Lee has been pushing for school choice since his first State of the State address in 2019.
The state legislature approved an “education savings account” program later that year and created a voucher pilot program in Davidson and Shelby counties. Under the program, students could apply for grants that they could use for private school tuition.
But Davidson County Chancellor Anne Martin ruled the program was unconstitutional for diverting money away from public schools without local approval. The program was set to launch for this school year, but the state had to abruptly put the brakes on it last May, after a judge temporarily froze the program. The state has appealed the ruling.
Sarah Wilson, executive director of the Tennessee Association of Independent Schools, says that the more than 600 non-public schools in the state serve a variety of families.
“Independent schools serve such a breadth of students,” said Wilson. Her group represents 60 independent schools in Tennessee, including schools created to serve students with specific needs, like compromised sight or hearing, or advanced autism.