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politico – Trump opens federal dollars for private school vouchers amid pandemic

The ordinance opens federal funds provided to states under the Block Grant for Community Services program – a roughly $ 700 million per year program administered by the Department of Health and Human Services – to pay ” tuition fees in private schools, home schooling, micro-tuition expenses for the learning module, special education services or tutoring. “

Executive action is helping to advance the Trump administration’s school choice agenda in its final days in office. Politico reported in November that the executive action was part of a wave of measures the White House had planned for its final weeks even as Trump refused to concede the election to President-elect Joe Biden.

Key context: Using public funds for tuition in private schools has long been a failure for most Democrats and teacher unions who view these policies as a privatization of the country’s public schools. The only federally funded school voucher program is in the District of Columbia, which receives tens of millions of dollars a year from Congress to pay for it.

Biden has vowed to reopen most schools in the first 100 days of his administration by providing more funds to school districts to implement coronavirus safety measures, such as better ventilation and larger classrooms. socially distant. His team is also evaluating a multibillion-dollar plan to test students, teachers and staff at least once a week.

Trump administration officials, meanwhile, have proposed that more funds be paid to parents to allow them to choose private alternatives to public schools during the pandemic.

HHS Secretary Alex Azar said Trump’s executive order “would help children and families without access to in-person education get it with scholarships and other funding mechanisms for private options when public options are not available.

“We know that face-to-face learning is essential for the development of children, especially for vulnerable children, and that it can be done safely,” Azar said in a statement. “We can defeat this pandemic and at the same time support a healthy future for our children.”

States are required to submit plans to HHS on how they plan to use their share of block grant funding for community services. The vast majority of funding is to be transferred to local community organizations, usually not-for-profit, which provide a range of services, such as helping low-income people or vulnerable populations with employment, housing, education and food.

The decree requires the HHS to take steps to allow “eligible entities” to use program money to provide “emergency learning grants to disadvantaged families.” White House and HHS spokespersons declined to provide further details on how the executive order would be implemented.

Change of tone: The anti-poverty funding stream that the Trump administration is now using to accelerate its position as a school choice is one it has repeatedly proposed to eliminate altogether. Trump’s budget requests to Congress have called for cutting funding for the block grants program to zero, criticizing it for being poorly targeted and duplicating other federal programs. But the appropriators of Congress ignored this proposal.

In March, Congress invested an additional $ 1 billion for the program in the CARES Act, bringing its total funding for fiscal 2020 to $ 1.7 billion. And the government funding omnibus bill that was combined with the coronavirus relief measure Trump signed on Sunday allocates an additional $ 775 million to the program for the current fiscal year 2021.

Trump officials, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, have repeatedly criticized the closure of schools during the pandemic and argued that the situation reinforces their long-held belief that parents should have the necessary resources. to choose the educational option best suited to their child.

Previous plans thwarted: But earlier efforts by the Trump administration to bolster alternatives to traditional public schools during the pandemic have been unsuccessful, thwarted by court challenges and Congress.

DeVos in September abandoned efforts to force public schools to share more of their federal pandemic funding with students in private schools after a Trump-appointed judge overturned his plan as illegal.

In Congress, Democrats and Republicans clashed for months this year as they negotiated proposals for coronavirus relief and how they should approach money for private school students.

DeVos on Monday criticized the bipartisan Covid relief package that Trump signed for not including his proposal to allocate billions of dollars in emergency school vouchers to families and create a new federal tax credit to promote scholarships to help families pay for private schools and home schooling. .

“Without this provision, students whose parents can no longer afford tuition at their private school, whose private school has been forced to close, or who remain at the mercy of their closed public school are again left behind. account, ”DeVos said in a statement.

The GOP’s pandemic relief proposals, including those released by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell over the summer, reportedly created a federally funded emergency voucher program to help families pay private school tuition fees during the pandemic, as well as the DeVos school choice tax credit. But neither did so in the final legislation.

And after: The new coronavirus relief law spends $ 2.75 billion on services in private schools. But it includes significant restrictions on how that money can be used, prohibiting it from supporting religious education or going towards scholarships for private school tuition, for example.

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