The politicization of the COVID pandemic is not a new development. Very early in the now two-year-long COVID journey, divergent views on masks, vaccinations, remote learning and shutdowns became fertile ground for highly charged political conflict. And just as the COVID virus mutated and developed new strains, the political aspects of response to the virus have mutated as well.
One of the emerging battlefronts is the promotion of school privatization as a response to COVID's impact on public schools. Arizona, which has been a hotbed of charter schools and school privatization for two decades, has now stepped to the forefront in advocating the diversion of public dollars - specifically federal COVID relief funds - to private schools as an option for parents who are unhappy with the manner in which their public schools are responding to COVID.
The governor of Arizona announced in January that the state would begin providing private school vouchers to public school students if their schools close or moved to remote learning. Using federal coronavirus relief funds, and despite warnings from the U.S. Treasury Department that two earlier school programs he created are not allowed under the American Rescue Plan Act, the governor is tapping $10 million in relief funds to give parents up to $7,000 a year to pay private school tuition and education costs. Eligible applicants may earn up to 350 percent of the federal poverty level — $92,750 for a family of four.
When asked about the initiative, President Biden noted the $130 billion in federal virus relief aimed at keeping schools safe and open. The money is for testing, improved ventilation, distancing, and other mitigation measures. “And the states and the school districts have spent this money well — many of them. But, unfortunately, some haven’t,” Biden said. “So I encourage the states and school districts to use the funding that you still have to protect your children and keep the schools open.”
The Arizona program went into effect on January 3rd. The governor created a similar $10 million school voucher program for parents whose schools require masks or quarantines and touted it as a response to a hue and cry from parents. Despite over 2,500 applications, only 85 students are getting the vouchers and the state has paid out $595,000. The governor in August also created a $163 million grant program only available to schools in high-income areas that do not have mask mandates.
Both programs run afoul of rules on spending federal virus relief money because they “undermine evidence-based efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19,” according to the Treasury Department. The governor rejected the Treasury demands in November and did not halt the programs. A Treasury spokesperson has said that the department is monitoring uses of coronavirus relief funds and “expects any government that uses them in violation of the eligible uses to repay the misused funds to the federal government.”
The Kentucky General Assembly is in session, and has already passed legislation in 2021 to divert public dollars to private schools. Even with that matter still in litigation, don't be surprised if some legislators seek to emulate Arizona's example.