Education Secretary Betsy DeVos promised Monday night that the Trump administration would propose “the most ambitious expansion of education choice in our nation’s history,” but said that states, rather than Washington, D.C., would make the decisions.
“When it comes to education, no solution, not even ones we like, should be dictated or run from Washington, D.C.,” she said.
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DeVos, though, offered scant details about the Trump administration’s vision for school choice.
Her speech at an Indianapolis summit hosted by the American Federation for Children, the school choice advocacy group she had formerly chaired, came just hours before the Trump administration releases a budget that proposes cuts to many traditional education programs, while making a $1 billion investment in promoting public school choice that has already drawn conservative criticism for expanding the federal government’s footprint in education.
States can choose not to participate in the Trump administration’s plans to expand school choice, she said. But “that would be a terrible mistake on their part,” she added. “They will be hurting the children and families who can least afford it.”
DeVos also avoided getting into detail on the Trump administration’s budget proposal, which proposes a new grant program that would encourage the flow of local, state and federal dollars to follow students moving from public school to public school. And she didn’t mention an additional $250 million to study and expand vouchers.
She said the aim of the Trump administration proposal is “to empower states and give leaders like [Indiana] Gov. Eric Holcomb the flexibility and opportunity to enhance the choices Indiana provides for Indiana students.”
“We won’t accomplish our goals by creating a new federal bureaucracy or by bribing states with their own taxpayers’ money,” she said. “We should have zero interest in substituting the current big government approach for our own big government approach.”
But some conservative think tanks that typically champion school choice, like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, see both proposals as an undue expansion of the federal role in education policy. Conservatives have long criticized the Obama administration for encouraging states to adopt higher academic standards and more rigorous exams in exchange for billions of dollars in competitive grant funding under the controversial Race to the Top program.
On the left, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten agreed.
“DeVos is taking a page from her Democratic predecessor Arne Duncan and proposing her own version of the Obama administration’s much-criticized Race to the Top,” she said. “While Duncan tied federal funds to the promotion of Common Core and testing, DeVos is tying federal funds to her own voucher and privatization projects. She is doing so, however, not by adding money but through a reverse Robin Hood strategy of robbing schools of investments that work for kids, like after-school programs, to pay for her pet privatization and voucher programs.”
In her speech, DeVos didn’t mention a federal education tax credit proposal, which the administration has purportedly been considering as a way to channel public money to private-school scholarships to enable working-class families to pay the tuition. AFC Chairman Bill Oberndorf was clear about his organization’s support for such a proposal.
“We look forward to more details about the school choice proposals and, ultimately, hope to see a federal education tax credit included in broader tax reform later this year,” he said.
It’s unclear if the Trump administration will ultimately get behind an education tax credit proposal. And there are a number of unanswered questions about how such a plan would work, such as whether the proposal would be housed under the Education or Treasury Department, whether there would be a cap on the amount of federal tax credits available, and what the income eligibility requirements would look like for families who hope to take advantage of the scholarships.
It could be part of a larger tax reform bill and pass through the budget reconciliation process with only 51 votes in the Senate. But if the Trump administration pursues the proposal as part of a larger tax overhaul, it could face some resistance from lawmakers who aren’t looking to over-complicate the tax code.
DeVos is following her speech with a scheduled visit Tuesday morning to Providence Cristo Rey High School — a small, Catholic private school in Indianapolis where nearly every student receives a voucher through the state’s voucher program.
Between DeVos’ speech, the budget release Tuesday and her scheduled budget testimony on the Hill on Wednesday, the administration’s proposals to expand school choice are drawing intense criticism from traditional public school advocates this week. Before DeVos took the stage Monday, traditional public school advocates were protesting in Indianapolis.
The National Education Association encouraged its members to inundate DeVos with emails rejecting vouchers, and about 1,000 people sent emails in the first hour, a spokeswoman for the teachers’ union said.
“It couldn’t be clearer: Betsy DeVos’ goal as Secretary of Education is to slash funding for public schools, using voucher schemes to funnel taxpayer dollars to unaccountable private schools,” NEA, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, said in its message online.
The American Federation of Teachers introduced a Snapchat filter branding photos with “Trump and DeVos need to fully fund education!”