Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos came to Washington in February 2017 with a mission ― to increase school choice.
On Thursday, Republican legislators like Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) took DeVos’ dream one step closer to reality, unveiling a bill that could help families use public dollars to pay for private schools and other educational programs like apprenticeships, online learning and special education services.
The bill, the Education Freedom Scholarship and Opportunity Act, would give individuals and businesses tax credits for donating to organizations that grant state scholarships. These organizations, in turn, would dole out scholarships to students.
Standing beside Cruz and Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.) at a press conference Thursday morning, DeVos hailed the effort as a “historic investment in America’s students,” framing the issue as one of “education freedom” rather than “school choice.”
“What’s missing in education today is at the core of what makes America truly great: freedom,” DeVos said.
States will have the ability to opt into the program and shape how the scholarships are used, as well as determining which students are eligible. Cruz told The Daily Caller that his legislation would provide $10 billion in federal tax credits. (The Department of Education, on the other hand, is pushing $5 billion in tax credits.)
Individuals could donate to a scholarship organization anywhere in the country under the program, even if their state doesn’t create one. They would be able to donate up to 10 percent of their adjusted gross income, while businesses could give up to 5 percent of their net taxable income.
The program would look similar to tax credit programs that already exist in 18 states ― and that opponents say function as school voucher programs by another name. But DeVos and her allies are emphasizing that this bill wouldn’t divert resources from public schools, and could help bolster them, if a state created a program that would allow scholarships to be used in that way. In programs that already exist, tax credits are often used to send low-income children to private schools.
But opponents say that when a student leaves a public school for a private one, the public school no longer receives per-pupil funding for that student, even as its fixed costs ― like building infrastructure ― remain the same.
DeVos dismissed as “fake news” the idea that the bill is an attack on public education.
“The only folks who are threatened are the ones who have a vested financial interest in suppressing education freedom,” she said.
Private schools that participate in existing school choice programs ― including vouchers ― aren’t subject to the same accountability or transparency rules as public schools, and a vast majority of them are religious. Over 40 percent of the schools that participate in current programs are non-Catholic Christian schools. Of those schools, at least 30 percent use evangelical textbooks that promote creationism, and sometimes push regressive ideas about race and gender, according to a previous HuffPost investigation.
At least 14 percent of religious schools that currently participate in private school choice programs openly discriminate against LGBTQ students, according to a HuffPost investigation.
DeVos has previously unsuccessfully proposed injecting federal money into private school choice programs in the Department of Education budget. She has also faced grilling by lawmakers about whether she would allow federal dollars to go to schools that discriminate against LGBTQ students.
But at Thursday’s press conference, Cruz called school choice “the civil rights issue of the 21st century.” He was flanked by students and families who have benefited from school choice around the country, including those with special needs.
The legislation faces an uphill battle in Congress, and while it has received praise from pro-voucher education reform groups, public school advocacy groups are pushing back against it.
“It reflects this administration’s persistent disdain for public education,” said JoAnn Bartoletti, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, in a statement.
A statement from Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) called the proposal “dead on arrival.”
But DeVos and Cruz pointed out that President Donald Trump promoted school choice during his campaign, and that he was elected to enact such a program. They also emphasized that the legislation won’t result in any federal mandates, with states designing their programs as they see fit.
“The American people elected Donald Trump in part because he pledged to bring school choice to America’s students,” DeVos said.