Billions for private schools in U.S. COVID relief bill divides teacher unions; FL union can live with it

Schools
School entrance sign. Photo, CD Davidson-Hiers

Last Thursday, the Biden administration signed the American Rescue Act into law, providing $1.9 trillion to state and local governments to help recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to an analysis from the Learning Policy Institute, the package allots $170.3 billion for education, including 125.4 billion for public K-12 education programs.

A report from The New York Times noted that the law has earmarked almost $3 billion to help private schools recover from the pandemic, rehashing an old fight over whether private schools, which may have fewer regulations and standards than public schools, receive public funds.

Even if one believes that private schools should not benefit from public money in most situations, should there be an exception to that principle during unprecedented times such as the pandemic?

“Obviously, we believe public dollars should go to public schools,” Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, said during an interview with the Phoenix. “I still believe that our public schools are the best place for kids to learn.”

Still: “I do not fault private schools who may need some assistance because of COVID as long as there’s some oversight attached to that.”

Low-income students targeted

The law allocates $2.75 billion so private schools can “provide services or assistance to non-public schools that enroll a significant percentage of low-income students and are most impacted by the qualifying emergency,” the bill language says.

This aspect to the bill has two national teacher unions — the National Education Association, or NEA, and the American Federation of Teachers, of AFT — split.

The NEA protested in a letter to the U.S. House of Representatives that, while it supports the bill, members were disappointed by the private school allocation, which recalled the “Betsy DeVos-era.”

Both national teacher unions were critical of former U.S. Secretary Betsy DeVos under the Trump administration.

Meanwhile, Randi Weingarten, president of the SFT, advocated for the funds, according to the Times article.

The Florida Phoenix reached out to both unions regarding their stances, but they did not reply.

The Times reported that Weingarten feels the language “was different from previous efforts to fund private schools that she had protested under the Trump administration, which sought to carve out a more significant percentage of funding and use it to advance private school tuition vouchers.”

The report continued: “The new law also had more safeguards, [Weingarten] said, such as requiring that it be spent on poor students and stipulating that private schools not be reimbursed.”

Accountability concerns

Spar’s FEA is affiliated with both national unions. Although he has concerns over accountability with these funds, he ultimately agrees with Weingarten.

Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association. Credit: FEA Officer portrait.

“I think Randi is right — everyone has suffered under COVID,” Spar said. “So, if the idea is to help some of these private schools deal with the impact of COVID, and it’s strictly funding that’s being dedicated for that purpose, I get it. I think that’s okay.”

Spar is still concerned about accountability but thinks: “We shouldn’t let one thing we disagree with kill the deal. At the end of the day, our public schools in Florida are going to get additional resources.”

According to the Florida Department of Education, there were 397,970 private school children in Florida during the 2019-20 school year — about 12.2 percent of students in the state.

The Phoenix reached out to several private school organizations for comment but did not receive a response.

As for how the federal package will affect Florida public and private schools, that’s not quite known yet. Cheryl Etters of the Florida Department of Education said officials have not yet gotten guidance from the federal government.

But the money in the COVID relief bill shines a new lens on a highly debated topic about whether public funds should be used to support private schools.

Meanwhile, moving through state Legislature is SB 48, sponsored by state Sen. Manny Diaz, a Republican who represents part of Miami-Dade County. It would consolidate five school voucher programs into two — one directed towards lower-income kids and another for students with special needs. The bill would also expand the number of families who qualify for voucher programs.