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DeVos Emphasizes States’ Prerogative on School Choice, Gives No Details on Federal Expansion

By Carolyn Phenicie | May 22, 2017

Photo: Getty Images
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made another impassioned plea for expanded school choice Monday evening but gave no new details on how the Trump administration would execute its bold initiative.
“We must acknowledge that the future is bleak for millions of students if we only continue to tinker around the edges with education reform,” DeVos told the annual conference of the American Federation for Children, a school choice advocacy group she founded. “The time has expired for reform. We need a transformation … that will open up America’s closed and antiquated education system.”
President Donald Trump will propose “the most ambitious expansion of education choice in our nation’s history” that will empower state leaders, DeVos said.
She was also emphatic that states will not be forced to participate, and a one-size-fits-all program won’t work.
“We should have zero interest in substituting the current big-government approach for our own big-government approach,” she said.
But beyond those principles — that expansive school reform is needed now, and it should be up to states — DeVos gave no other specifics on the program in her speech to perhaps the friendliest audience she has faced since becoming secretary. Convention-goers at the gathering in Indianapolis gave her standing ovations at both the start and the end of her remarks, though there had been some protests outside earlier in the afternoon, according to tweets from reporters on the scene.
— Senator Jean Breaux (@JeanBreaux) May 22, 2017
School choice will be a top priority in the Trump administration’s 2018 budget that will be released Tuesday, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said on a call with reporters Monday afternoon.
The administration in its full budget will propose $250 million in “Education Innovation and Research Grants” to both study and fund vouchers for private schools, along with $1 billion in Title I funds that would follow low-income students as they move among public schools, The Washington Post reported last week.
Trump’s 2018 “skinny budget” report released earlier this year included a $1.4 billion down payment toward the eventual $20 billion in school choice funds Trump promised on the campaign trail, even as it would make deep cuts to other long-standing education programs.
(The 74: Trump Calls for New School Choice Initiatives, Big Cuts to K-12 Budget)
Some conservatives have been skeptical of a large federal school choice program, saying it could be used as an inappropriate intrusion by Washington, D.C., into what should be state decisions and, in some instances, private school policies.
Even as she emphasized that participation in a choice program would be left up to states, DeVos was unsparing in her criticism of legislators who don’t offer new choice programs, calling it a “terrible mistake” that would hurt kids and families who can least afford it.
“If politicians in a state block education choice, it means those politicians do not support equal opportunity for all kids. They’ll be the ones who will have to explain to their constituent parents why they are denying their fundamental right to choose what type of education is best for their child,” she said.
Democrats generally oppose tax-credit scholarships, which give tax breaks to corporations and individuals that donate money to fund private school scholarships, arguing that they’re a gateway to vouchers, which give money for private school tuition directly to families. DeVos seemed to acknowledge that partisan flashpoint.
“If you hear nothing else I say tonight, please hear this: Education should not be a partisan issue. Sure, various approaches to education policy should be hotly debated, and they certainly are,” she said. “But, making sure that all of our kids get a great education, how could it be a partisan issue?”
DeVos will visit Providence Cristo Rey High School in Indianapolis Tuesday morning. Nearly a third of the school’s students are scholarship recipients, NPR reported in an extensive story about Indiana’s voucher program.
Wednesday DeVos testifies before the House Appropriations Committee on the administration’s budget proposal for the Education Department. It will be the first time she has publicly addressed legislators since her much-derided confirmation hearing, and she is sure to get questions about the administration’s school choice proposal.
Disclosure: The Dick & Betsy DeVos Family Foundation previously provided financial support to The 74.
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