When Congress sent billions of dollars to states at the start of the coronavirus pandemic to help secure schools, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee saw an opportunity.
He used some of the manna to further his goal of providing choice school options for parents, sending millions of people to charter schools that operate without traditional public oversight. That included funneling over $ 4 million into new charters that aren’t expected to open until at least next year.
It was an easy way for the Republican governor to push forward a long-standing priority. For Lee and some other GOP governors, discretionary money was a chance to bypass their state legislatures and advance school choice, which typically involves funding charter schools or offering vouchers for that parents can use taxpayer money to pay for private school tuition.
Teacher unions and other critics see these efforts as a way to divert money from traditional public schools.
“It gives the impression that he is using the pandemic and the relief from the pandemic to pursue his ideological goal of funding traditional public schools,” said state representative Gloria Johnson, Democrat and retired teacher.
In a series of bills since the start of the COVID-19 epidemic last year, Congress has allocated $ 190 billion to help public and private schools weather the pandemic. While there is no centralized way to see how districts and private schools are spending aid, the Associated Press has tracked most of that money to determine how much has been received by virtually every school district in the country. and to analyze how the governors distributed the aid they were free to distribute as they wished.
In the first wave of funding, governors received $ 3 billion with few strings attached, but hope it would be used to help schools and colleges “hardest hit by the coronavirus.”
They used this money in various ways: New Jersey supported colleges. Oregon has used it to ensure that even the smallest rural districts receive a minimum amount of aid. States, including Indiana and Colorado, have established competitive grant programs for school districts.
This week, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey announced he was using a separate jar of federal pandemic aid to create a $ 10 million grant initiative similar to the existing private education voucher program of the state. It was the Republican governor’s latest attempt to push back public school districts that defy a state ban on mask mandates. The funding allows for grants of up to $ 7,000 per student if their public school needs masks, orders quarantines due to exposure to COVID-19, or gives vaccinated students a different treatment.
In Tennessee, Lee has long advocated for the launch of more charter schools – institutions funded by the state but operating outside of traditional school districts. In a feature that appeals to many conservatives, they typically do not have unionized teachers.
Of the nearly $ 64 million in discretionary pandemic education money that arrived at his office, Lee spent $ 10 million on charters. The governor used it to ensure that each charter received help and to help existing schools add grades. He’s earmarked part of it – $ 4.4 million – to help launch new charters, none of which are slated to welcome students until at least 2022.
Lee spokeswoman Casey Black did not respond directly to a question from the AP about funding charter schools that are not yet open, but said using the money would help provide families with access to high quality education. Brian Blackley, a spokesperson for the Lee State Department of Education, said the charter school funding was intended to give families more options.
âEducation is not one size fits all, and the pandemic has shown us how important it is to provide families with better access to high quality school options,â he said in an e- mail.
Beth Brown, president of the Tennessee Education Association, criticized the spending.
“Using pandemic relief money to open new charter schools is an insult to public school teachers who have worked tirelessly since March 2020 to keep public schools open,” said Brown, an English teacher in high school in rural Grundy County.
U.S. Representative Bobby Scott, a Democrat from Virginia who chairs the House Labor and Education committee, said the federal money was not meant to be used that way.
“The 5% or 10% that ends up in the charters may or may not improve their educational situation,” he said. “It’s hard to argue that the reduction in money available for public schools helps 90 to 95% of those who attend public schools.”
Oklahoma GOP Governor Kevin Stitt used $ 10 million of the nearly $ 40 million in his governor-controlled fund to create a stay-in-school program that funded scholarships for students. low-income students who are already attending private schools.
Education Secretary Ryan Walters said the state was hearing from parents who lost income at the start of the pandemic and could not continue paying private school tuition.
âMoving them in the middle of a pandemic to a brand new school would create even more trauma for them,â he said.
Most private schools in Oklahoma are religious. One exception is Positive Tomorrows, an Oklahoma City school exclusively for students from homeless families.
The school typically costs around $ 3 million a year to operate, with many expenses paid for through donations. He got about $ 350,000 from Stitt’s program, plus an additional $ 250,000 in repayable loans from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program to continue paying teachers and staff. Public schools did not have access to forgivable loans.
âBecause of the role we serve, I think we deserve government funding,â said Susan Agel, school president. “It’s a kind of thing that I would really love to see more of, especially for our school.”
State Representative Jacob Rosecrants, a Democrat who was a teacher in a public school until his election in 2017, said there are still major needs in public schools that should be met before the money from the taxpayers are not taken into account for private schools.
âIf you want to go to a private school, you have a choice,â he said. âYou are private for a reason.
The governors of Florida and New Hampshire have also used some of their discretionary money for private scholarship programs.
A South Carolina program backed by GOP Governor Henry McMaster was larger – $ 32 million – and scholarships were provided for students who were not already in private schools. But the scholarships were never awarded because the program was unanimously blocked by the state’s Supreme Court.
Shaunette Parker, board chair of Second Baptist Christian Preparatory School in Aiken, said McMaster’s proposal could have been a starting point for establishing a broader voucher program in South Carolina, some something that was never passed by the Legislature.
âWe were hoping that the success of this one-year funding would have shown people how this was not going to create a mass exodus from public schools,â Parker said. “It would have improved education all around.”
After the court dismissed McMaster’s efforts, he redirected the money to other programs, including launching regional computer labs, strengthening technical colleges, funding summer and extended day programs for them. 4-year-olds – and aid to public charter schools where enrollment has increased.