Governors have a responsibility to use public relief funds

to protect – not replace – public education

As pandemic-related costs multiply and rising unemployment fuels a precipitous drop in projected state revenues, public education budgets are in peril. For just this reason, Congress included in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act the $3 billion Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund, a flexible pot of federal dollars governors could use to support K-12 schools and colleges impacted by COVID-19. This dire outlook should be reason enough for governors to dedicate every available GEER dollar toward public education relief efforts. GEER funds alone are not enough to meet all student academic, social, and safety needs, but they are critical to helping states manage their fiscal crises, advance their legislative agendas, and support their public education systems.

Unfortunately, some governors decided to use GEER funds to support private schools and voucher programs, despite some private schools’ discriminatory admissions practices, varying accountability requirements, inconsistent accreditation status, and limited civil rights protections for vulnerable student populations. This is extremely disappointing. Instead of acting on the mounting fiscal and logistical challenges public school systems face, a handful of governors have instead focused on the few students who attend private schools over the many who are completely dependent on a constitutionally-guaranteed public education system.

In South Carolina, for example, a state that already operates a private school choice program with lackluster student achievement, Governor Henry McMaster pledged $32 million of the state’s $48 million GEER allocation toward creating  Safe Access to Flexible Education (SAFE) Grants. This voucher program would provide up to 5,000 students – only 0.6 percent of the state’s total K-12 population – with a one-time, $6,500 voucher to attend a selective private school. Encouragingly, an additional $2.4 million will go toward supporting the state’s eight Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). However, if the remaining $13.6 million in GEER funds is distributed exclusively to school districts in South Carolina, the allocation would amount to around $17.50 per student – 371 times less than the SAFE grant scholarship amount.[1]

In Florida, which already spends nearly $1 billion annually on four different private school choice programs, Governor Ron DeSantis is sending $45 million out of his total $178 million to private schools. The Governors of Oklahoma and New Hampshire have made similar commitments, with Governor Kevin Stitt (OK) pledging $10 million, or 25 percent of his allocation, toward a voucher program called Stay in School Funds, and Governor Chris Sununu (NH) pledging $1.5 million of his nearly $9 million allocation toward supplementing an existing tax-credit scholarship program in his state.

South Carolina, Florida, and Oklahoma already fund their public schools at inadequate levels. For example, per-pupil expenditures in Florida ($9,176), Oklahoma ($8,091), and South Carolina ($10,045) are considerably lower than the national average of $11,791 per student. States that consistently rank in the bottom half of public school spending nationwide, such as those listed above, should be especially conscious of how they use relief funds and committed to supporting school districts experiencing inequities.

In contrast, a handful of other governors have used GEER funds to recognize and invest in the technology- and connectivity-related needs of students in their states. In Alabama, where 41 percent of students lack an adequate internet connection, Governor Kay Ivey is committing all $48 million of her GEER allocation to the Alabama Department of Education for WiFi and connectivity, remote learning opportunities, academic support, and tutoring and remediation for students who are behind. In Tennessee, which has the seventh-highest percentage of students lacking adequate internet access in the nation, Governor Bill Lee announced that he will use $61 million of his $64 million allocation to support K-12 education. Fifty million dollars of that allocation will be invested in technology grants that can be used for WiFi, laptops, and other devices. Other governors, including in Texas, Mississippi and Virginia, have announced similar intended uses of their funds.

Focusing on governors’ actions regarding public education in their respective states is especially important as Congress deliberates the next COVID-19 relief package. The Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection, and Schools (HEALS) Act, the latest comprehensive COVID-19 relief proposal from the U.S. Senate, proposes an additional $5 billion in GEER funds. To ensure that the next round of GEER funds goes only toward public K-12 and higher education systems and students, the next relief package should prevent governors from using GEER funds to advance any type of private school choice program or supplement access to private schools in their state. The legality of using GEER funds for private schools is already in question in South Carolina, where a Circuit Court judge in Orangeburg County temporarily blocked the creation of Governor McMaster’s SAFE Grants program.

Private schools have access to multiple other sources of federal relief funds, including the Paycheck Protection Program, which doled out up to $10 million to two private schools in New Orleans while the entire school district received just under $8 million in CARES Act relief funds. Redirecting multiple federal funding streams toward private schools as public schools face mounting difficulties and diminishing financial resources is inequitable and, in many cases, unconstitutional. Congress should focus on preventing the siphoning of funds toward private schools in the next relief package.

Governors have a fiscal and legal obligation to advance policies that protect the health, safety and overall well-being of the people within their states. Therefore, they should make a point of directing GEER funds and all other COVID-19 relief funds to address the immediate needs of a state’s most vulnerable students – not on unproven, ineffective school privatization programs that serve only a small fraction of students. It is time each and every one of our nation’s governors takes this responsibility to heart and rises to meet the unprecedented educational challenges of this moment.

[1] This figure comes from subtracting 5,000 (the amount of students receiving a SAFE grant) from the total number of K-12 students in South Carolina, and diving $13,600,000 by the number acquired in the previous calculation.

Sujith Cherukumilli is SEF’s Legislative and Research Analyst.