States Must Avoid

Spending CARES Act Funds On Private Educational Services

By Sujith Cherukumilli // May 8, 2020

Through passage of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act over one month ago, Congress appropriated a total of $30.75 billion toward an Emergency Education Stabilization Fund for Governors, K-12 school districts, and institutions of higher education. Through an ideologically-driven interpretation of the specific language in the CARES Act, United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced that around one percent, or $307.5 million, of the total appropriations for education within the CARES Act will be set-aside for discretionary “microgrants” for families, virtual and private education programs, experimental remote education programs, and workforce and career training programs for students. Issued on a competitive basis, the one percent allocation was originally intended for states especially burdened by COVID-19. Secretary DeVos also granted broad authority to governors to spend $3 billion through the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund on a myriad of education related items, including funding both charter and non-public schools.

At face value, the allocation of additional funds with few strings attached seems to provide enough flexibility for states to address the unique needs of their respective student populations. However, considering the troubling history and prevalence of school privatization programs in the South and Secretary DeVos’ long-standing desire to expand school privatization programs, the level of flexibility and certain explicitly-stated allowable uses for both the microgrant programs and GEER funds will potentially fail to address or, at worst, exacerbate existing inequities in traditional public school districts.

Guidance from ED on applying to receive the microgrants includes a few encouraging pieces, such as allowing the use of grant funds to purchase hardware and software to bolster distance learning capabilities. The bright spots end there, though, with ED’s explicit endorsement and encouragement of using funds towards private and virtual schools underscoring much of the document, and the Department’s emphasis on “educational choice” and “educational freedom” – code for school privatization.

The use of federal funds to support private and virtual schools is not only inequitable, but also ineffective. The most recent and thorough research suggests that students attending exclusively virtual schools perform well below their peers in face-to-face, brick and mortar schools, due in part to the largely deceptive and unproven nature of virtual education programs. Additional research reveals that while virtual schools comprise just one percent of all American high schools, 87 percent of virtual high schools have a graduation rate of 40 percent or lower. Similarly, studies on private school vouchers and the only publicly-available tax-credit scholarship state produced report that includes student assessment results shows a decline in achievement among participating students.

In the South, these kinds of efforts towards school privatization gained prevalence following the 1954 landmark Brown v. Board of Education decisionas white families quickly moved to divest from the newly-integrated public education system and divert funding and resources toward an exclusive, nearly all-white system of private schools. Sixty-six years later, the tradition of privatization remains alive and well in the South, with 12 states dedicating a total of $1.6 billion in state funding or tax credits toward private school tuition payments. This redirection of public dollars toward private schools has emerged as one of many culprits for chronically-underfunded school systems throughout the southern states. Under DeVos’ grant program, southern states now have license to use these federal resources to perpetuate inequities in educational opportunity and racially segregated schools.

Through this pandemic, it has become evident that the incapacity of many high-poverty public school districts to institute high-quality, sustainable distance learning models is not the result of an unwillingness to do so. Rather, it is due in large part to a lack of adequate funding for devices, broadband infrastructure, and professional development for staff members to aid in the abrupt transition to online platforms. Looming cuts to public education budgets, coupled with ED’s encouragement for states to utilize funds to prop up failing or mediocre virtual education programs, foreshadow a widening of opportunity and achievement gaps between different groups of students. If states decide to use GEER and microgrants funds toward supplementing private education programs, such actions would amount to a blatant disregard of their constitutional obligation to establish, maintain, and support a system of free public education at any and all costs.


It is not too late for states to prepare for the impending budget crisis in a way that will protect public schools and public school students.  Governors and State Education Chiefs can:

  • Add all or most of their GEER funds to their state’s respective K-12 funding formula. This type of proactive action will enable state leaders to stave off some of the decreases in state revenues.
  • Consider using grant funds toward implementing reforms grounded in research and improved student achievement, such as providing professional development and support for teachers, administrators, and parents; technical supports for districts to aid in distance learning for students from low-income families, students with disabilities, and English learners; wraparound services, including nutritional and mental health programs; and the expansion of broadband and access to technology for students from low-income families.
  • Channel public funds provided to the government by hardworking taxpayers only to public schools. Any effort to funnel public dollars to private schools supports the advancement of a dual education system – one transparent, accountable, and student-growth oriented, and the other discriminatory, unaccountable, segregative, and costly.

While the COVID-19 crisis has laid bare the inequities present in our education system, opportunities abound for intentional, collaborative, and equity-minded improvements. It’s up to our leaders to rise to the challenge.


Sujith Cherukumilli is SEF’s Legislative and Research Analyst.