Betsy DeVos
Photo courtesy the Department of Education.

Of the coronavirus relief money spent on education by Secretary DeVos to date, $50 million has gone to theological schools and seminaries. $500 million has gone to private schools overall. 

FAST FACTS 

  1. DeVos directed more than $500 million of coronavirus relief money to private and religious schools for purposes well outside coronavirus recovery. 
  2. Nearly half a million of that went to a college that is suspected to be a front for a cult.
  3. DeVos also directed public schools to spend a large share of their money on private school students instead. 

GRAND RAPIDS, MI — Education secretary and Michigander Betsy DeVos has directed money intended to help schools through the coronavirus pandemic toward primarily religious schools instead, the New York Times reported.

Education advocates say public schools are in desperate need of this funding as a result of the pandemic. Moreover, organizations like the Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union see DeVos’ prioritization of private and religiously affiliated schools over others, including one identifying as a cult, as not only contrary to the spirit of coronavirus relief but conflicting with the state’s constitution.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES) included $30 billion for education, broken down to $14 billion for higher education, $13.5 billion to K-12 education, and the rest for state governments themselves. 

But DeVos has used $180 million of CARES funds to encourage states to create “microgrants” for parents that would allow families to pay for expenses in K-12 education, including private school tuition. These “microgrants” closely resemble school vouchers, which are a favorite policy of DeVos, according to the Guardian.

In a conversation with The ‘Gander, education advocacy group Protect Our Public Schools cited a time when DeVos was held in contempt over efforts to protect private, for-profit schools. 

“Public schools were overlooked in the CARES Act,” said retired teacher Ellen Offen. “Out of the $2.2 trillion, K-12 public schools got about $13.5 billion, which is really a drop in the bucket for the unprecedented crisis our public schools face. Even in the 2009 stimulus package, funding for K-12 schools was 1.5 times greater than what it was in the CARES Act. And schools across Michigan are facing a much greater, daunting crisis now.”

Michigan Schools in Crisis 

Despite extraordinary need as a result of the pandemic, CARES support has been far smaller than previous crisis response legislation. This problem is compounded by direction from DeVos, Offen said. 

“Secretary DeVos is rewriting and exploiting previous U.S. Department of Education guidance to shovel taxpayer dollars to private, for-profit schools,” Offen told The ‘Gander. “She’s manipulated previous guidance to force local school districts to funnel COVID-19 relief funds to private schools in affluent areas that don’t serve low-income students. That’s not how the original guidance was intended.” 

Offen, who is a former Detroit Public Schools teacher, serves as vice president of the nonprofit Protect Our Public Schools. The DeVos family successfully lobbied to raise the number of for-profit charter schools in Detroit, reports the New York Times. And Protect Our Public Schools told The ‘Gander that those charters don’t perform well — 70% of Michigan charter schools are in the bottom half of Michigan schools by performance. 

Michigan has the most for-profit charter schools in the nation, and its taxpayers now spend roughly $1 billion on charter schools annually. The Network for Public Education reported that millions have gone to for-profit charters that never even opened. 

And comparing CARES Act funding to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, Michigan has received far less funding for a far worse crisis, Protect Our Public Schools argued. While Michigan education got $1.6 billion in 2009, in 2020 it got only around $850 million. And breaking CARES funding down further, K-12 schools in Michigan only get $293 per student.

“It’s going to result in Michigan’s rural students and children living in high-poverty areas receiving tens of millions of dollars less in funding that they desperately need and would otherwise receive,” Offen said.

The ACLU is presently suing the state of Michigan in the case Council for Education about Parochiaid v. Michigan over a similar use of public tax funds on private schools in a case stemming from a Snyder-era policy of reimbursing private schools for costs associated with transportation or teacher training. That case is awaiting trial by the Michigan Supreme Court. 

“For nearly fifty years, Michigan’s constitution has strictly prohibited taxpayer funding of private and religious schools,” the Michigan chapter of the ACLU said in a statement. 

The outcome of that suit also has implications for DeVos’ use of CARES funding. 

DeVos’ Policy Nationwide

The Times also reports DeVos spent $350 million of the federal education funding meant to help support struggling colleges on small colleges, including private, religious colleges, regardless of need.

Of the fund depleted so far, $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 an analysis by Salon

Salon also reported that the Department of Education encouraged schools who received the money but didn’t need it to voluntarily decline to use the funds they were assigned. 

Additionally, DeVos directed $495,000 in federal education funds to the Wright Graduate University for the Realization of Human Potential in Wisconsin. A site the Times identified as belonging to the Wright Foundation, which is related to the university, includes a page attempting to debunk arguments that it is a cult. However, the URL of the foundation is WrightInstituteCult.com.

Both WrightFoundation.org and WrightInstittueCult.com are registered by Robert Wright from the same address.

DeVos has long held hostility toward secular education, once saying that rules that prevent public money from financing religious schools should be “assigned to the ash heap of history,” per reporting by Education Week. This hostility now finds its way into money public education desperately needs, as The ‘Gander reported

This is especially clear in guidance from DeVos, which both directs the allocation of money to private schools but continues to exempt those schools from the legal responsibilities that come with receiving money from the federal government. The National Association of Independent Schools lists those responsibilities as adhering to workplace, student privacy and nondiscrimination laws, among others. 

“A non-public school whose students and teachers receive equitable services under the CARES Act programs is not a ‘recipient of Federal financial assistance,’” the guidance argues. “As a result, certain Federal requirements that apply to a recipient of Federal financial assistance are not directly applicable to a non-public school whose students or teachers receive equitable services under the CARES Act programs, unless the school otherwise receives Federal financial assistance for other purposes.”

The guidance also directs public schools to spend a larger share of their CARES funding on students attending private schools, reports Business Insider

“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,” Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, and Daniel A. Domenech, the executive director of AASA told the Times.

This has sparked conflict within states like Indiana, where the Republican State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick refused the Indiana Department of Education’s reminders about DeVos’ guidance.