WASHINGTON — Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is using the $2 trillion coronavirus stabilization law to throw a lifeline to education sectors she has long championed, directing millions of federal dollars intended primarily for public schools and colleges to private and religious schools.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, signed in late March, included $30 billion for education institutions turned upside down by the pandemic shutdowns, about $14 billion for higher education, $13.5 billion to elementary and secondary schools, and the rest for state governments.
Ms. DeVos has used $180 million of those dollars 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.
And she has nearly depleted the 2.5 percent of higher education funding, about $350 million, set aside for struggling colleges to bolster small colleges — many of them private, religious or on the margins of higher education — regardless of need. The Wright Graduate University for the Realization of Human Potential, a private college in Wisconsin that has a website debunking claims that it is a cult, received about $495,000.
Bergin University of Canine Studies in California said its $472,850 allocation was a “godsend.”
“I think we are one of the most important educational institutions out there right now,” said its founder, Bonnie Bergin, who is credited with inventing the service dog.
On the Senate floor this week, Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the minority leader, accused Ms. DeVos of “exploiting congressional relief efforts.” He said she had been “using a portion of that funding not to help states or localities cope with the crisis, but to augment her push for voucherlike programs, a prior initiative that has nothing to do with Covid-19.”
House Democrats included language in a stimulus bill set for a vote on Friday that would limit Ms. DeVos’s ability to use about $58 billion in additional education relief for K-12 school districts for private schools. Congress has largely rejected Ms. DeVos’s proposals to create programs that resemble private school vouchers, and public education groups say Ms. DeVos is abusing discretion granted to her under the emergency legislation to achieve a long-held agenda.
“And it only took a pandemic,” said Sasha Pudelski, the advocacy director at the AASA, the School Superintendents Association.
The Education Department called the accusation “absurd.” But in a statement, the department said that every student and teacher had been affected by the pandemic. “The current disruption to our education system has reaffirmed what Secretary DeVos has been saying for years: We need to rethink education for all students, of every age, no matter the type of school setting,” it said.
Ms. DeVos has long held that taxpayer funds should be available for private school tuition, giving parents the chance to escape failing public schools and public education competition to drive improvement.
A spokesman for Republican members of the House Education Committee defended Ms. DeVos’s actions: “While there are likely multiple ways the secretary could have interpreted this broadly written law, the language the appropriators wrote gave her the flexibility to implement it as she has done.”
The most contentious move is guidance that directs school districts to increase the share of dollars they spend on students in private schools. Under federal education law, school districts are required to use funding they receive for their poorest students to provide “equitable services,” such as tutoring and transportation for low-income students attending private schools in their districts. But the department said districts should use their emergency funding, which was doled out based on student poverty rates, to support all students attending private schools in their districts, regardless of income.
Her guidance comes as elementary and secondary education groups lobby Congress for billions of additional dollars to lift students out of the educational crisis caused by the pandemic. In big cities, which serve the most vulnerable students, district leaders are projecting budget shortfalls of up to 25 percent because of collapsing tax revenues, said the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents 76 of the nation’s large urban districts. Its member districts said they could be forced to lay off 275,000 teachers.
The federal Education Department said if school districts were to count only poor students, “they would be placing nonpublic school students and teachers at a disadvantage that Congress did not intend.”
“It’s sad, but unsurprising, that some would put their own financial interests ahead of the needs of all students and teachers,” the department said.
Educators are pleading with the department to revise or rescind the guidance. In Montana, school officials estimate that compliance would shift more than $1.5 million to private and home schools, up from about $206,469 that the schools are due under current law. In Louisiana, private schools would receive at least 267 percent more funding, and at least 77 percent of the relief allocation for Orleans Parish would be redirected, according to a letter state that education chiefs sent to Ms. DeVos. The Newark Public Schools in New Jersey would lose $800,000 in federal relief funds to private schools, David G. Sciarra, the executive director of the Education Law Center, said in a letter to the governor of New Jersey asking him to reject the guidance.
Pennsylvania’s education secretary, Pedro A. Rivera, protested to the department that under the guidance, 53 percent more money would flow “from most disadvantaged to more advantaged students” in urban districts like Philadelphia, while rural districts like Northeast Bradford would see a 932 percent increase.
“School districts can — and should — ignore this guidance, which flouts what Congress intended to do with the CARES Act: support students who need it the most,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, and Daniel A. Domenech, the executive director of AASA.
Indiana has announced it would not enforce the guidance. In a memo, its superintendent of public instruction, Jennifer McCormick, a Republican, said the state “ensures that the funds are distributed according to congressional intent and a plain reading of the law.”
“I will not play political agenda games with COVID relief funds,” she said on Twitter.
Private school educators say that they have always been included in emergency relief funding, including for Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, and this situation should be no different.
Sister Dale McDonald, the director of public policy and educational research at the National Catholic Educational Association, said many of its schools would need to be cleaned, and their staffing would need to be shored up. At least 100 member schools are at risk for not reopening at all.
“In an emergency, kids shouldn’t have to prove they’re poor to get what they need to continue their education,” Sister McDonald said.
A competition announced by Ms. DeVos in which states can vie for tens of millions of dollars either to create statewide virtual schools or offer “microgrants” is also drawing fire for mirroring voucher programs that help parents pay for services outside the public school system. The program also stands to benefit virtual education companies that Ms. DeVos has personally invested in.
Representative Robert C. Scott of Virginia, the chairman of the House education committee, said the competition’s point system was weighted in favor of rural areas and voucher-friendly states, rather than those most affected by the coronavirus.
“This program design is indistinguishable from a standard voucher scheme and is the latest attempt by this department to promote privatization initiatives against both the wishes of the American people, and the intent of Congress,” he wrote to Ms. DeVos.
The microgrant program has been cheered by champions of school choice.
“They are smart to take advantage of the lag and lack of disciplined delivery of education,” said Jeanne Allen, the chief executive of the Center for Education Reform. “We don’t have any choice but to make parents and families the unit of education right now.”
Trish Stevens, who has a special-needs daughter, said a program in Arizona that was much like the microgrant proposal had been “life changing” for her child, who is supposed to have $150-an-hour speech therapy and $250-an-hour tutors.
“It’s like the Wild West of education right now,” she said, “and we’re all just trying to figure it out.”
Ms. DeVos is also under fire from college educators for disbursing millions of dollars to hundreds of small colleges that may not need it. The coronavirus relief law set aside about $350 million for schools that demonstrated “significant unmet needs related to expenses associated with coronavirus.” The department was supposed to prioritize schools that did not receive at least $500,000 from other categories of higher education funding. Instead, Ms. DeVos used the money to ensure that small schools received $500,000 each.
Ben Miller, the vice president for postsecondary education at the liberal Center for American Progress, said the allocations came as large public colleges were “rationing,” and community colleges “starve.”
Aaron D. Profitt, the vice president for academic affairs at God’s Bible School and College in Ohio, said the school did not plan to claim its allocation because it was getting by on small donations. Ms. DeVos had criticized elite colleges that received stimulus funding they did not apply for and had urged schools to reject money they did not need.
“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,” Mr. Profitt 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.”