The Trump administration could allow families to use federal education funding elsewhere if the local public school does not open during the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. education secretary said on Thursday.
“If schools aren’t going to reopen, we’re not suggesting pulling funding from education but instead allowing families ... (to) take that money and figure out where their kids can get educated if their schools are going to refuse to open,” Betsy DeVos told Fox News in an interview.
DeVos, a proponent of private and religious education who has long pushed school choice, gave no details on the administration’s plan.
New Hampshire has yet to release its guidelines for reopening schools this fall.
“We expect our schools to be open in September for in-person and, where appropriate, remote instruction for those who need it, providing a safe learning environment for our teachers and students,” Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut said in a statement.
He did not address DeVos’ statements about redirecting federal funds.
Schools are scrambling to prepare for the upcoming academic year as the pandemic surges nationwide, topping 3 million confirmed cases. President Donald Trump has called on schools to reopen, but there is no federal plan to coordinate the effort.
Local administrators must weigh the needs of children and families and also teachers and staff. In addition to health concerns, the economic consequences are vast. Many working parents rely on schools for child care as well as education.
Trump on Wednesday threatened to cut school funding and blasted his own administration’s guidelines for schools to reopen as “impractical” and “expensive.”
Later, Vice President Mike Pence said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) would clarify the guidance next week.
It was unclear how the administration planned to redirect federal education dollars. Congress would have to approve any change in appropriations, which would likely face resistance by Democrats, who control the House.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said everyone wants to open schools “but it must be safe for the children.”
Most public schools are run and funded by local governments, with supplemental funding from the federal government.
On Wednesday, Pence told reporters the administration would work with Congress, which is weighing another coronavirus aid package, to give states incentive “to get kids back to school.”
White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany said Trump wanted to tie federal funds directly to students, and not their school district if it closes.
School administrators are weighing a variety of measures, including adjusting the school calendar and utilizing online classes, to help keep the coronavirus in check.
But DeVos argued schools can safely reopen now, something echoed by some of Trump’s fellow Republicans in Congress.
“If we can work to reopen bars, restaurants and casinos, we can work together to responsibly open our schools and day cares,” House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy said.
Health experts have said the restart of such economic activity has driven a wave of new cases, particularly in Texas, Florida and Arizona.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican and head of the National Governors Association, said Trump’s funding threat was “unfortunate” but that he did not expect schools to lose money.
His state, he told MSNBC, would base its decision on input from scientists, teachers and parents. “We’re not going to be bullied or threatened by the president.”