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Democrats rebuke White House over possibly directing virus aid away from public schools

White House suggests future coronavirus aid be tied to students, not schools

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was among the officials at the task force press briefing Wednesday.
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was among the officials at the task force press briefing Wednesday. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump’s apparent proposal that future coronavirus aid for schools be tied to students, rather than school districts, has drawn rebukes from key Democrats.

“He wants to increase funding in CARES four for education, but he’s looking at potentially redirecting that to make sure it goes to the student, and it is most likely tied to the student and not to a district where schools are closed,” White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters at the White House on Wednesday.

“CARES four” refers to the expected next assistance package as the COVID-19 pandemic continues across the country.

“He wants them to reopen altogether. He wants students to be welcomed back to these schools,” McEnany said.

The Trump administration has made no secret of wanting to pressure schools to be open for students this fall, but McEnany’s comments point to another potential objective.

“He thinks that funding should go to the child. It should be there for children who are going to school,” said the press secretary, who also criticized “teachers’ unions who want to keep these schools closed.”

The White House, the coronavirus task force, the Department of Education and the Office of Management and Budget did not offer specifics on how the funds might be tied to students, but no one reached by CQ Roll Call would rule out the idea of funds flowing to private and parochial schools.

[CDC to revise school reopening guidance]

Democrats, predictably, are not on board with any plan that could involve the Trump administration redirecting aid away from public school systems.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, chairwoman of the House Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee, said in a statement that she would oppose any privatization efforts.

“Again, the Executive Branch seems to have forgotten who holds the power of the purse,” the Connecticut Democrat said. “Instead of threatening to strip funding from the children and families who need it the most, I and my fellow House Democrats are working hard to provide schools with the resources they need to safely reopen.”

Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on both the Appropriations subcommittee responsible for the Education budget and the committee with authorizing power, stressed the importance of safety in getting children back to school.

“Democrats have a plan to give schools the resources they need to keep their campuses safe and to keep students learning, whether in-person or online, while the President is irresponsibly trying to bully schools into reopening no matter the risk,” Murray said.

“The thought of using students’ safety as a bargaining chip is truly appalling,” she said, “and I hope Senate Republicans don’t stoop to that level.”

White House points to abuse concerns

McEnany cited concerns raised in an American Academy of Pediatrics report about the consequences of schools being physically closed, including limited reporting of cases of child abuse and neglect.

“Keeping schools closed down is an untenable prospect, and if this administration is going to stand for anything, it’s going to be standing against child abuse, which reporting falls when schools are closed,” McEnany said.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar made a similar point at a press briefing earlier Wednesday, which followed a task force meeting hosted by the Education Department.

“From HHS’s perspective, reopening schools safely may be the single most important thing that we can do to support healthy families during this pandemic. All decisions about undertaking activities during COVID-19 have to look at risk as a continuum, not a binary question,” Azar said. “States and school districts can think about the same things that we urge individuals to think about.”

Other Trump administration officials on the stage at the Education Department focused on economic challenges for workers whose children remain home from school.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, long an advocate for expanding school choice beyond traditional public schools, pointed in that direction during her remarks.

“What’s clear is that students and their families need more options. I’ve talked a long time about the need to rethink education and … to expand education options for all students, DeVos said. “This moment really demands action, and America always was, and is, and always will be a country of doers.”

DeVos specifically criticized the school district in Fairfax County, Virginia, which she called “an elite public school system in America,” for announcing a proposal for limited in-person instruction this fall.

Vice President Mike Pence said at the same event that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would offer revised guidance on opening schools, after Trump took to Twitter to criticize what the CDC had already published.

McEnany also framed the president’s push for schools to open as promoting “educational equality.”

“This president fights for school choice, he fights for opportunity, and he’ll fight for schools to stay open,” McEnany said.

DeLauro said she was still waiting for a formal administration request to help schools.

“With weeks to go until the start of a new academic year, the Trump administration has yet to propose or request a single dollar to help our public schools reopen,” DeLauro said. “Instead, the administration and Secretary DeVos remain fixated on how it can siphon away resources for vouchers and other privatization schemes.”

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