A broad coalition of religious groups, including three Baptist organizations, has asked the U.S. Senate to avoid using public education dollars to help private schools in the next round of coronavirus relief legislation.
The Senate GOP’s HEALS Act would provide $1 trillion for economic relief in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to providing funds for hospitals and businesses, and boosting unemployment benefits, the legislation proposes to support schools.
It is the education portion of the Health, Economic Assistance Liability Protection & Schools Act that worries the Alliance of Baptists, the American Baptist Home Mission Societies, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and other signers of a July 24 letter addressed to Senate leadership.
“Specifically, we are concerned with the rumors that a percentage of the education funding will be set aside to create a new government funding stream for private schools,” the coalition letter states.
The coalition says it also is concerned that funding provided to schools may be conditional on the resumption of in-person education.
“Threatening public schools with the loss of funding undermines the abilities of states to decide how best to handle the public health crisis in their state,” says the letter also signed by Pastors for Children, the National Council of Jewish Women and the United Methodist Church.
The legislation is known informally as the “CARES Act 2” because it follows the $2.2 trillion Cares Act passed by Congress in March. The first legislation is due to expire July 31.
The proposed HEALS Act follows the U.S. Supreme Court’s July 30 ruling in Espinoza v. Montana that said states that subsidize private education must include religious schools. Since then, the BJC said in a separate statement, the Trump administration seems to have ramped up its efforts to expand school vouchers.
But the coalition letter asserts that private schools have had an unfair advantage over public education during the coronavirus pandemic by being able to access relief programs available to other small businesses and nonprofits. Those include applying for the Paycheck Protection Program, Economic Disaster Loans and other tax-relief programs provided by previous pandemic relief legislation.
Public schools cannot access those programs because they are considered units of government. Rather than having additional public education money diverted to religious schools, public education should instead receive its own boost of support to cover expenses related to keeping staff and students healthy, and spaces clean, the group argues.
Signees of the letter state their appreciation for private, religious education and adds that, as religious groups themselves, “some of us sponsor such schools.”
“We also recognize that even in the best of circumstances private schools could never replace the public school system that serves approximately 90% of school children in the United States,” the faith leaders state.