Secular Groups to Congress: Reserve Relief Funds for Public Education, Not Religious Schools

For Immediate Release: August 6, 2020
Contact: Paul Fidalgo, Communications Director - (207) 358-9785

American public schools are facing unprecedented challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, but opponents of public education, led by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, seek to use the crisis to funnel taxpayer dollars to unaccountable private religious schools. A coalition of the country’s largest freethought organizations is urging Congress not to sacrifice public education for the benefit of sectarian schools, and to ensure that any new pandemic relief measures for education are focused on public schools and the 90 percent of American students who attend them.

“Public schools are open to all children regardless of their religious or nonreligious background,” said Jason Lemieux, director of government affairs for the Center for Inquiry, the organization leading the coalition’s efforts. “Private religious schools are not. They’re free to discriminate in hiring and to choose which students to admit, all depending on the religious views of whoever happens to operate them. Right now, when public schools are working overtime to safely reopen, that’s where pandemic relief needs to be focused.”

The Center for Inquiry, joined by American Atheists, the American Humanist Association, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and the Secular Coalition for America, delivered a message to House and Senate leadership regarding ongoing discussions over COVID-19 relief legislation. Among the proposals being debated are an appropriations bill that could send billions in taxpayer dollars to private schools through state grants—whether or not they actually need them—and a new publicly-funded voucher program similar to Secretary DeVos’s “Emergency Freedom Scholarship” plan. 

“The novel coronavirus does not discriminate in whom it infects,” states the letter, “but many private schools do discriminate when selecting children they choose to educate and who they hire to teach.” For example, the letter points out that in the 2017-2018 school year, 78 percent of private school students attended a school with an explicitly religious mission. “It is impossible to fund private schools without directly funding religious programming,” they write.

The groups highlight the desperate situation faced by public schools, determined to carry out their mission to provide a quality secular education to all students without discrimination, even as they struggle to overcome a litany of challenges regarding health, safety, scheduling, budgeting, and operations brought on by the pandemic. Despite this monumental task, private schools still received hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer funding through the Paycheck Protection Program, which was unavailable to public schools.

“Ensuring that public schools are given the resources they need to educate every child is more important than ever,” said Lemieux. “We cannot use the pandemic as an excuse to let our guard down—or let our kids down. Public dollars belong in public schools.”

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The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is a nonprofit educational, advocacy, and research organization headquartered in Amherst, New York, with executive offices in Washington, D.C. It is also home to the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and the Council for Secular Humanism. The Center for Inquiry strives to foster a secular society based on reason, science, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. Visit CFI on the web at