In May, the House passed the HEROES act, the latest bill responding to the COVID pandemic. HEROES isn’t perfect, but it’s a fine start. After waiting two months and rejecting HEROES without so much as a vote, Senator Mitch McConnell released the GOP’s response to HEROES and the ongoing pandemic and recession. Frankly, the bill is such a hot mess that even the Republican caucus is having trouble getting behind it. Here’s why S. 4322 is terrible for students—especially our youngest learners in elementary and secondary schools.
1. It creates a federal voucher program to fund private K-12 schools, which have been notorious for trampling student rights. S. 4322 would codify one of Betsy DeVos’s favorite failing causes: school vouchers. Private schools—including religious schools who don’t have the best track record when it comes to protecting student civil rights—would be eligible to get federally funded vouchers from families. And there’s nothing in S. 4322 keeping schools from discriminating based on sex, race, national origin, or disability.
A 2017 investigation found that 14% of religious schools actively discriminate against LGBTQ+ students and staff. That study accounted only for schools with explicit policies—we know many more follow religious tenets to push students out of school if their gender identity or sexual orientation doesn’t jive with the school’s beliefs.
Religious schools may also choose to discriminate against students who are raised by LGBTQ+ parents or single mothers, students who become pregnant, students who choose to get an abortion, parenting students—basically, anyone who the school believes doesn’t live up to the faith. These schools are also known to have racially discriminatory dress code policies that reinforce racist stereotypes against Black girls and foster cultures of sexual harassment.
We’ve said it before. We’ll say it again. Federal money shouldn’t be used to support discrimination in ANY school—that includes private religious ones.
2. It diverts funds that public schools desperately need to private schools. S. 4322 would divert about $7 billion from public schools to fund private schools that have free reign to discriminate against their students. And as with the voucher program, the bill goes out of its way to exempt private schools from civil rights protections that usually come as a condition of accepting federal money.
Rather than giving this money to private schools that discriminate and serve wealthy families, emergency funding should be focused on bolstering the needs of low-income students, students with disabilities, LGBTQ+ students, and Black and brown youth—the majority of which go to public schools.
3. It punishes K-12 schools that determine it’s unsafe to reopen, putting the lives and futures of millions of children, teachers, and families at risk. S. 4322 ties the bulk of available K-12 funds to in-person learning, in a bizarre attempt to coerce schools into re-opening regardless of local public health conditions. Using federal funding to push school districts into acting against the safety and health of their communities is unacceptable, and school administrators and teacher groups agree. Instead, funding should be flexible enough to support online learning where it’s necessary, with a special focus on ensuring the educational needs of students with disabilities are met and low-income and other marginalized students have access to the technology and resources they need to succeed.
4. It abandons student loan borrowers. The last stimulus package (known as the CARES Act) provided some reprieve for graduates buried in student loan debt by pausing payments, interest accrual, and debt collection activities for six months. That reprieve is set to end in September. The HEROES act extends that relief and adds limited debt cancellation for some borrowers. S. 4322 doesn’t do any of those things. Instead, it rebrands an income-driven repayment plan that already exists and otherwise leaves borrowers to struggle as unemployment climbs and financial hardships intensify, especially for women and borrowers of color.
Fortunately, Congress is still negotiating what the next COVID relief bill will look like. S. 4322 is a nonstarter that should be ignored. Instead, Congress members should focus a plan to help students learn and live through this pandemic—not further political agendas that degrade student civil rights, public health, and economic stability.