Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration are threatening to withhold school funding if kids aren’t back in class in the fall, and teachers and Democratic lawmakers are pushing back hard.
In her media rounds on Sunday, in an interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace, DeVos said there's “nothing in the data that suggests that kids being in school is in any way dangerous,” and reiterated the administration’s threat to cut funding for schools which don’t fully reopen.
“American investment in education is a promise to students and their families,” DeVos told Wallace. “If schools aren't going to reopen and not fulfill that promise, they shouldn't get the funds, and give it to the families to decide to go to a school that is going to meet that promise.” (Wallace, thankfully, pointed out that DeVos and Trump can’t actually do that.)
Another DeVos appearance on CNN was roundly criticized by both lawmakers and educators. Democratic Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts tweeted that DeVos and the Department of Education have “no plan,” and that “I wouldn’t trust you to care for a houseplant, let alone my child.”
In that interview, DeVos brushed off guidelines from the CDC which clearly say that when children meet in groups, “it can put everyone at risk.”
“Well, the CDC has also been very clear to say they never recommended schools close down in the first place,” DeVos told CNN’s Dana Bash. “And they are very much of the posture that kids need to be back in school for a multitude of reasons.”
DeVos repeatedly declined to get specific about the federal government’s plan to have schools safely reopen, even when presented with a clip of Scott Brabrand, the superintendent of Fairfax County (Virginia) Schools, saying his school system would need more than “five Pentagons” of space in order to safely accommodate kids going back.
Though Fairfax is offering families the option for complete virtual learning or two days a week in school with virtual instruction for the rest of the week, DeVos has criticized the plan, and described it to CNN as “not a full-time learning plan.”
Appearing on CNN after DeVos, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California let loose on DeVos and the administration. “I think what we heard from the secretary was malfeasance and dereliction of duty,” Pelosi said. “This is appalling. They're messing, they're messing—the president and his administration are messing with the health of our children.”
The Trump administration’s forceful push to reopen schools has come under attack even from Republicans, particularly over the threat to cut funding to schools that don’t open on time. “Threats are not helpful,” Oklahoma’s GOP superintendent of public instruction Joy Hofmeister told Politico last week.
And although DeVos and the administration have repeatedly cited the American Association of Pediatrics’ recommendation last month that “all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school,” the organization released another statement last week alongside the country’s top two teachers’ unions and the School Superintendents Association, saying that withholding funding from schools “would be a misguided approach, putting already financially strapped schools in an impossible position that would threaten the health of students and teachers.”
The National Education Association also roundly criticized DeVos’ comments and lack of a plan, calling it “dangerous.”
Last week, NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia dared Trump “to sit in a class of 39 sixth-graders and breathe that air without any preparation for how we’re going to bring our kids back safely.”
Brabrand, the Fairfax County superintendent, criticized DeVos’ expectations in an interview with CNN. “COVID hits all of us, and the guidelines for 6 feet social distancing simply mean that you can't put every kid back in a school with the existing square-footage footprint. It's just that simple," he said.
"This is the American Dream, American public education. We're here to offer it to all of our students and families, and those that would critique it, I don't think have the best interests of public education and of the United States at heart," he added.
Cover: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, with Vice President Mike Pence, speaks during a White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing at the Department of Education building Wednesday, July 8, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)