Democrats ask DeVos to review South Carolina grant program that uses COVID-19 relief funds

Democrats accuse the state of creating a "voucher scheme" using CARES Act funds.

October 6, 2020, 5:26 PM

Two members of Congress on Monday accused South Carolina of creating a "voucher scheme" using COVID-19 relief money.

In a letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, and the chairman of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, wrote that the "scheme" may violate the text of the CARES Act and the Education Department's guidance.

"We write regarding South Carolina's use of Governor Emergency Education Relief (GEER) funds to develop a voucher scheme. This scheme appears to violate the plain text of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) as well as the Department's related guidance," the letter said.

According to the letter, the South Carolina governor's office developed a program where parents can apply for grants "of up to $6,500 per student" using $32 million of the state's Governor Emergency Education Relief (or GEER) funds. According to the letter, the grants, once awarded, will be put into "parent-controlled accounts for tuition payments to private schools."

"To be eligible for SAFE Grants, a student must be from a household with an adjusted gross income of 300% or less of the federal poverty level," the South Carolina governor's office said in a statement when it announced the grant program in July. It said the one-time grants could be used to "help or subsidize the 2020-21 tuition for eligible students at participating private, parochial or independent schools in South Carolina."

The Education Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

PHOTO: Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos listens during a cabinet meeting in the East Room of the White House, May 19, 2020.
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos listens during a cabinet meeting in the East Room of the White House, May 19, 2020.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

In July, DeVos -- who has long advocated for school choice -- tweeted in support of the South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, writing, "In SC today with Governor @henrymcmaster who knows students need to be able to safely return to school this fall and parents need options to make that happen. Thanks to his leadership, $32M in #CARESAct funds will go to low-income SC families to find the right fit this fall."

However, GEER funding can only be used for grants for local education agencies and institutions of higher education "that have been most significantly impacted by coronavirus," as well as "other IHEs, LEAs, or education related entities that the governor deems essential for carrying out specified emergency educational services to students," according to Monday's letter.

"The SAFE grant program does not award grants to LEAs, IHEs, or other education related entities; rather, vouchers are awarded directly to parents," the letter said, adding that specific department guidance says, "May the Governor use GEER funds to award scholarships, microgrants or financial aid directly to students or teachers? No, not directly ... A Governor is prohibited from awarding GEER funds to individuals."

When the SAFE grant was announced, McMaster said in a statement: "Private schools in our state provide an essential education to over 50,000 children."

"They provide parents the ability to choose the type of education environment and instruction they feel best suits their child's unique needs. And a large number of these students come from working or low-income families who -- in the best economy -- are barely able to scrimp and scrape together just enough money to pay their child's tuition," he said.

The two Democratic House members have asked DeVos to review South Carolina's grant program.

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