MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The coronavirus pandemic has upended so many aspects of life, but we know that students and teachers and, of course, parents are feeling this particularly acutely. So as the school year comes to a close, we're taking a look at how education has been affected. In a minute, we'll hear from a high school senior who's had to change her plans for the fall in the midst of this crisis.
But we're going to start with news this past week out of the Department of Education. As you probably know, Congress has provided more than $2 trillion in coronavirus relief and recovery assistance through the CARES Act. From that, $30 billion was set aside for education. Now, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has directed millions intended for public schools to private and religious schools.
The department issued guidance directing school districts to increase funding to private schools based on the total number of students private schools educate regardless of student income. The secretary's guidance has been met with pushback from members of Congress and school superintendents, some of whom say they will not follow this guidance.
The department defended the move in a statement to The New York Times, saying, quote, "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," unquote.
We've called the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee to talk about that, Congressman Bobby Scott of Virginia. His committee helped get education funding into the CARES Act, and he's written a letter to Secretary DeVos calling the program, quote, "indistinguishable from a standard voucher scheme and the latest attempt by this department to promote privatization initiatives against both the wishes of the American people and the intent of Congress," unquote. And Congressman Scott is with us now.
Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
BOBBY SCOTT: It's a pleasure to be with you, Michel.
MARTIN: You said that the secretary's guidance is a - like a voucher scheme. Why is it like a voucher scheme?
SCOTT: Well, the problem is that the details are not very well-defined. But it's clear that the money can be used for private people and private schools that are not low-income at all. This money is designed for people in public school to deal with the peculiar problems the COVID-19 pandemic is causing - that are causing the problems like enhanced achievement gaps, lack of technologies, lack of summer programs.
That's where the money is supposed to go. And it's being diverted to - it's a little unclear, but it's clear that parents who do not qualify as low-income can certainly benefit from this program. But that's not what it was used for.
MARTIN: Well, you know, private in religious schools do have some access to public funds. I mean, it's generally indirect - I mean, to sort of maybe perhaps get a bond, a low-cost sort of bond or something like that to do construction projects. I mean, how is this different? How does this guidance differ from that? What would this guidance allow them to do that they cannot now do?
SCOTT: Well, the point is this one is designed to help low-income students. This would direct money, redirect money that could be used - that would end up funding programs for students that are not lower-income. It's certainly in direct contravention to the intent of Congress, if not the absolute letter of the law. The superintendent in Indiana indicated that it was not only contrary to the spirit but also the letter of the law, and they weren't going to follow the guidance.
MARTIN: Let me read that statement, if you don't mind. So, as you just mentioned, some school superintendents have said, as you just noted, that they're not going to follow this. Jennifer McCormick is the superintendent of public instruction Indiana, and she said on her Twitter feed that her state would, quote, "distribute funds according to congressional intent and a plain reading of the law." She goes on to say, "I will not play political agenda games with COVID relief funds. Our most at-risk students depend on this commitment" - unquote.
So, Congressman Scott, does Congress have some recourse here? If this superintendent suggests that she thinks that this is contrary to the law, does Congress have some remedy here?
SCOTT: Well, we have oversight responsibilities. We can point out to the Department of Education that they are in violation of the spirit and, in my reading, the letter of the law. And we can in subsequent legislation make it even more clear than it already is that the money is designed for low-income students to address the peculiar needs of low-income students.
MARTIN: But it's my understanding that the secretary does not have the power to penalize states that don't follow this guidance. Is that accurate?
SCOTT: Well, that's whole point of guidance. If you follow guidance, you know you're not going to get penalized. Whether the guidance is contrary to law or not, if you follow guidance, you know that the department will not penalize you.
MARTIN: So what you're saying is that states that have the same ideological perspective that she has, which is that where the leadership of the education departments there agree with her that public and religious institutions should have this money can do so, but she can't penalize states that don't agree. Is that accurate?
SCOTT: You may be penalized for violating guidance. But you know you have a safe harbor if you follow the guidance. And the idea that those states that agree with her philosophically on vouchers and diverting money from the public schools, low-income students and public schools, to wealthy students and private schools - if you agree with that, you can certainly follow the guidance.
And the formula that was constructed to distribute the money tended to follow - tended to give a lot more money to the schools - or to the states that had robust voucher plans and less money to those that actually needed it.
MARTIN: So will the House Oversight Committee, which is specifically looking into the distribution of CARES Act funds, investigate how school districts spend this money? Can you direct them to do that?
SCOTT: Well, we'll be doing oversight as the Education and Labor Committee. And we'll also - they - we'll have - there's an oversight committee specifically set up to - for the oversight of the CARES Act. I mean, there's a huge amount of money involved, and we want to make sure that it's being spent long - as efficiently as possible, consistent with congressional intent.
MARTIN: That was Congressman Bobby Scott. He's the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.
Congressman Scott, thank you so much for talking to us today.
SCOTT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.