Millions of American children have started back to school this year . . . online. That detail has many parents frustrated. Now some government leaders want to channel that annoyance into support for school choice policies.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and President Donald Trump have repeatedly touted school choice as the solution to parents’ education woes. If public schools fail to open, they say, parents should get a cut of the district’s federal funding. Then parents could homeschool or send their children to private schools, learning pods, or other options that have arisen during the coronavirus pandemic.
For DeVos, the situation offers a new chance to win support for policies she has spent her career promoting. For decades, she advocated for charter schools and voucher programs in Michigan and elsewhere. As secretary, she helped states expand school choice programs—but has struggled to make headway on federal legislation.
DeVos draws attention to families calling for options beyond their local public schools and emphasizes the struggles of private, religious schools. She has called for a $5 billion federal tax credit to support scholarships that help students attend private schools or take part in other education alternatives.
In July, DeVos issued a rule that sought to shift millions of dollars in federal virus relief from public schools to private schools. Democrats and some Republicans in Congress said that wasn’t the intent of the bill. This month, a federal judge struck it down, saying DeVos overstepped her powers.
DeVos’ critics accuse her of misusing a public health crisis for her own agenda. But she says she’s fighting to give families more options.
“Parents are increasingly demanding it,” DeVos says. “I would argue that it is the ideal time to be talking about this.” She insists in-person instruction should be available to any family that wants it, even during the pandemic. She believes anything short of that fails students and taxpayers.
Whether the pandemic conditions will boost demand for private or charter schools is still to be seen. Sure, families are frustrated with online schooling, but most polls say Americans support caution when returning to schoolrooms.
Many public school leaders dislike DeVos’ renewed calls for school choice. But she says she’s working closely with governors and state education chiefs and has yet to hear a complaint from them. She calls claims that she hasn’t done enough for public schools “hand-wringing” and “excuse-making.”
(A student has his temperature taken before entering the private Catholic Immaculate Conception School on Wednesday, September 9, 2020, in the Bronx borough of New York. AP Photo/John Minchillo)