In Surprise Move, DeVos Resists Pressure To Nationalize School Choice

In Surprise Move, DeVos Resists Pressure To Nationalize School Choice

A House exchange attacking religious Americans accidentally highlighted the wisdom in Betsy DeVos's apparent decision this week to refrain from anouncing a federal 'choice' program.
Joy Pullmann
By

Politico reported on May 18 that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was set to announce a national school choice program on May 22 in Indianapolis. She didn’t.

In front of the national school choice organization she chaired before becoming education secretary, the American Federation for Children, DeVos instead emphasized that states and parents ought to be leading the way in restoring self-government to American education. It contained some riveting and pointed lines, including a reference to “flat earthers” who don’t accept research showing that school choice generally boosts student outcomes.

The point is to provide quality options that serve students so each of them can grow. Every option should be held accountable, but they should be directly accountable to parents and communities, not to Washington, DC bureaucrats.

… We shouldn’t view this, however, as a chance to mandate a one-size-fits-all school choice proposal. We all fundamentally know one size doesn‘t fit all…and that we won’t accomplish our goals by creating a new federal bureaucracy or by bribing states with their own taxpayers’ money. We should have zero interest in substituting the current big government approach for our own big government approach.

When it comes to education, no solution, not even ones we like, should be dictated or run from Washington, DC.

Let me be clear. I firmly believe every state should provide choices and embrace equal opportunity in education. But those are decisions states must make. No two states are the same and no two states’ approaches will be the same – and that’s a good thing. States are the best laboratories of our democracy…This means we have the opportunity to get Washington and the federal bureaucracy out of the way so parents can make the right choices for their kids.

Preach it, Mrs. DeVos. Notice how her crack against bribing states with their own money undermines the very basis on which her department operates. Since it has no constitutional authority it scrounges up a pretense at some through taxing Americans then letting them have some of their money back only if they do what Congress demands. Yet these startlingly non-establishment insights conflict not only with Democrats’ bent but with that of most Republicans at the federal level. What do these remarks not include? A federal school choice proposal, or even an endorsement of any currently floating, such as Sen. Marco Rubio’s, a model AFC has been pushing for years.

Attendees expected that announcement, said Ben DeGrow, education director at Michigan’s Mackinac Institute for Public Policy, who was there. Instead, however, DeVos’s speech undermined any rationale for a federalized choice program, despite seeming several times to set up such an announcement, then pivoting towards states and away from federalization. See this one:

The President is proposing the most ambitious expansion of education choice in our nation’s history. The proposal’s aim is to empower states and give leaders like Gov. Eric Holcomb the flexibility and opportunity to enhance the choices Indiana provides for Indiana students (emphasis original).

This suggests a subtle rift between DeVos and the organization she formerly chaired, despite accusations of improper confluence between the two. Ever since DeVos was appointed to her current position, AFC has pushed for a federal version of Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program, in which tax-deductible private donations to a scholarship nonprofit help needy kids attend private schools. In a statement to Politico, for example, AFC spokesman Tommy Schultz said “Congress and the Trump administration ‘have a unique window of opportunity to facilitate a dramatic expansion of parental choice in America. More than 3.5 million children are currently benefiting from charters and private choice programs, while millions more are demanding access to these same options.'”

And in a statement released directly after DeVos’s speech, AFC Chairman Bill Oberndorf said “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.”

Despite these expectations, shared by folks such as Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform, the Trump administration chose to support other choice-related endeavors in its aspirational budget, which was released Tuesday. It proposes, among a mild 13 percent budget reduction, largely to programs that have for decades shown no effectiveness in Government Accountability Office reviews and other internal studies, spending $250 million for voucher research and opt-in pilot programs, and making $1 billion in Title I funds for low-income children portable among public schools.

Wednesday, DeVos went before the House Appropriations Committee to discuss that budget proposal. Members of Congress often appeared particularly obtuse about the concepts of “freedom” and “choice” DeVos kept redirecting them to.

“We’re not proposing any shift of funding from public schools to private schools,” DeVos said in an exchange with Rep. Nita Lowey (D-New York). “…Everyone talks about vouchers but there are, what we have to understand, there’s mechanisms for parents’ choices and vouchers are but one mechanism. The $250 million does not prescribe a method or mechanism.”

Then DeVos had to explain to California Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard how tying Title I money directly to poor children to follow them to schools their parents choose does not somehow end up benefitting rich kids at poor kids’ expense. It can’t exclusively help the rich kids if it’s only tied to the poor kids, except incidentally (and who is opposed to programs for poor kids helping both them and others?).

Of course, the headlines post-hearing all focused on an exchange between DeVos and Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Massachusetts) in which Clark insisted that parents shouldn’t be able to use their child’s tax-provided education funds to attend a religious school that upholds orthodox teachings about human sexuality. Apparently while Democrats are very concerned that rich children not get any financial benefits they are content to only allow rich children to access an education that comports with their family and community’s deepest beliefs about ultimate realities.

Clark cited a school in Indiana, Lighthouse Christian Academy, that educates 152 students who access the school through state vouchers and maintains its right to refuse students whose sexual activities do not uphold Christian standards. DeVos asserted that states should be free to set parameters for schools that accept government funds through choice programs.

“Is there any situation, would you say to Indiana that school cannot discriminate against LGBT students if you want to receive federal dollars?” Clark hammered. “I believe states continue to have flexibility in putting together their programs,” DeVos answered, during interruptions.

This exchange accidentally highlighted the wisdom in DeVos’s apparent decision this week to refrain from anouncing a federal “choice” program. Democrats are now openly admitting that they will consider any such program to promote bigotry if it enables students to access schools that uphold the orthodox teachings of all three major Western religions regarding sexual ethics. Notice how this also reduces education to political correctness programming; if boys can’t claim to be girls in a given school, it somehow automatically invalidates their science and math and history curricula.

Now, square that with the fact that 79 percent of U.S. private schools are religious. Any “choice” program that complies with Clark’s litmust test will both preclude the vast majority of potential options and pressure those options to become more like the public schools parents would have to want to leave to use the program at all. In other words, under these operating assumptions “choice” would in fact reduce choice, just like in Indiana the state voucher program has herded many private schools into public schools’ Common Core system. In the hands of bureaucrats, “choice” is a giant homogenizer.

While currently American parents seem to be lucky to have an advocate for their rights running the Education Department, we will not always be so lucky. Someday, and soon, another Democrat will hold that position. Creating a program that can reach from the federal level into virtually every public and private school in the nation is only building a weapon aimed directly at American schools’ curricular and philosophical diversity. That’s no choice. Let’s hope Betsy DeVos really does know it.

Joy Pullmann is managing editor of The Federalist and author of "The Education Invasion: How Common Core Fights Parents for Control of American Kids," out from Encounter Books this spring. Get it on Amazon.

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