Secretary DeVos and School Choice

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos delivered a fantastic speech at Harvard last week, which included the now regular backdrop of disrespectful, uninformed, and intolerant protestors. Her speech was so good, it even elicited praise from some in the conservative think tank crowd who have criticized her focus on educational choice. Some even concluded that the Secretary is finally listening to them and abandoning her emphasis on choice and a federal effort to expand K-12 options for families and children.

They should pay closer attention to her speeches.

The Secretary has been consistent – from her confirmation hearing to her Harvard speech – in her unyielding support for all educational options for kids and her view of what the Administration would support and not support when it comes to a federal effort. She has stated clearly, on multiple occasions, that she would not support a new federal program with rules dictated from Washington, D.C. She believes states should decide if they want to participate in any federal school choice offering.

Has the Administration abandoned the idea of trying to facilitate an expansion of choice in K-12 education? That’s hard to imagine considering we have a President, Vice President, and Secretary of Education who all believe that families and children should have the power to choose their educational environment. Moreover, the Secretary has said that a federal education tax credit remains a part of their discussions and that advancing educational choice is a matter of timing and circumstances.

We continue to believe that a K-12 tax credit is the best and most viable path for the Administration to fulfill its commitment to facilitate an expansion of choice in K-12 education. Most importantly, it’s a way to help a whole lot of kids escape schools that are failing them and gain access to a quality education. Despite the hue and cry from detractors that this would be a new federal program complete with mandates and a slew of regulations, a K-12 tax credit would be tax policy, not a federal program. While corporations and individuals in every state would be eligible for the federal tax credit, only states that opt-in and approve the non-profits to provide the scholarships would participate. Rules for those non-profits and oversight of private schools would be determined by states as they are now.

A K-12 tax credit creates a pathway for states to respond to the demand for more and better educational options for families and children. This isn’t replacing state leadership on school  choice or changing states’ current school choice offerings, it is enhancing those offerings. Most tax credit scholarship states have very low scholarship amounts and most states with a private school choice program often see students returning to their ZIP code assigned public school in 9th grade. A K-12 tax credit would augment scholarship amounts in states that already have this option, allow more kids to participate, and create this opportunity in states where it does not currently exist should that state choose to participate.

It’s easy to understand why the teachers’ unions and the education establishment oppose federal action on educational choice; but much harder to understand why some choice advocates are so committed to limiting the pathways for families and children to access better educational options. We’re fortunate to have a Secretary of Education who is thinking bigger and more broadly about increasing opportunity and improving outcomes for all students. And, yes, a big part of that is continuing the fight at the state and federal levels to give families and children more choice in K-12 education.