Ethics & Public Policy Center

It’s Time for a Federal Voucher Program

Published in National Review Online on May 19, 2020

As part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, Congress allocated $30 billion to assist educational institutions in handling the economic fallout from COVID-19. About half of that funding was designated for higher education and $13.5 billion for K–12 schools, with the remainder left to state governments.

The bill gave the Department of Education discretion to craft guidelines for disbursing the money, and earlier this month, Secretary Betsy DeVos came under fire after she directed school districts to increase the amount of the money spent on students who attend private schools. Most of the funds will be allocated on the basis of need, with more going to areas that have higher numbers of low-income students. But the new guidance requires districts to allocate part of their shares to private-school students, on the basis of what percentage of all students in their jurisdictions attend private schools, rather than what percentage of low-income students do. Angering opponents of school choice, DeVos has also used about $180 million of the CARES Act funding to incentivize states to create microgrants, which would allow parents of grade-school or high-school children to pay for a variety of educational options, including private schools.

DeVos’s critics, including several Democratic congressmen, argue that her guidance violates the intention of the law because it requires districts to use emergency funding, allocated based on poverty rates, to support all local students, including supposedly wealthy ones who attend private schools. According to Chalkbeat, public-school advocates say the guidance “will funnel precious resources to wealthy private schools while districts struggle to provide computers and free meals.”

Supporters of the department’s guidance, meanwhile, say it is consistent with the intention of the CARES Act, which aims to assist all schools and students in recovering from the economic crisis caused by the pandemic.

It is worth noting that DeVos’s efforts to assist private-school children involve a tiny percentage of the overall CARES Act funding designated for schools. Moreover, there is no reason why governments should, for instance, privilege a local public school’s efforts to provide computers over assisting parents who want to keep their children in private schools. Arguments to the contrary are simply a retread of common anti-school-choice talking points, which insist that any government help for parents who opt out of public school — whether in the form of vouchers, education-savings accounts, or tax-credit-scholarship programs — disadvantages those who remain in the public-school system.

One might quibble with the specifics of how DeVos sought to include private schools and their students in the distribution of CARES Act funds, but her reasons for doing so are sensible. Though the stimulus bill dispensed funding to educational institutions, Congress failed to acknowledge that millions of Americans choose not to send their children to public schools and thus are receiving no assistance to continue making the best educational choices they can during this crisis.

Private schools typically receive far less direct financial assistance from the government than public schools. In the case of religious schools, such assistance has, in most cases, been deemed a violation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause. While public schools are the beneficiaries of a steady stream of funding from the local, state, and federal governments, underwritten by taxpayers, the majority of private schools rely almost entirely on tuition money and donations. Absent aid, these schools will be the first to close when families face coronavirus-related financial hardship, and our country will be worse off for it.

To take just one example, close to 2 million American children attend Catholic schools in the U.S., and nearly 20 percent of those students are minorities. According to one study, a Hispanic or African-American student who attends Catholic school is 42 percent more likely to graduate from high school and 2.5 times more likely to graduate from college than one who doesn’t. Meanwhile, the National Catholic Educational Association estimates that Catholic schools save the U.S. about $24 billion each year. The mean cost per student at a Catholic school is $5,847, and $12,608 at a public school. Yet because of the pandemic, more than 600 Catholic schools in the U.S. are at risk of shutting down.

DeVos’s guidance is merely one small way of attempting to level the playing field in the absence of efforts to directly help private schools and the families they serve. It would be even better for Congress to offset tuition costs by earmarking funding in the next coronavirus-relief package for parents who send their children to non-public K–12 schools. A targeted voucher program, created specifically to respond to the economic devastation of the COVID-19 outbreak, would help parents to continue sending their children to the schools that are best for them.

In the long term, though, the best solution of all would be for Congress to finally create a federal program providing vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, or education-savings accounts to families. The debate over government relief and DeVos’s guidance illustrates precisely what is broken about education funding in the U.S. There is no reason why a financial crisis should spur the federal government to pour billions of dollars into public schools while ignoring the millions of parents who believe a private education is best for their children. Yet that is what it has done, because that is what it is in the habit of doing during more “normal” times.

American families deserve better now, and they’ll deserve better going forward. Congress must act to give them as many options as possible.

Alexandra DeSanctis is a staff writer for National Review and a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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