DeVos pushes for school reform at conference

The Detroit News

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said Monday that education for students must be “transformed” to “open up America’s closed and antiquated education system.”

The Grand Rapids-area change advocate told a conference in Indianapolis that President Donald Trump is proposing “the most ambitious expansion of education choice in our nation’s history,” but didn’t outline any details.

Politico reported in the past week that the Trump administration is considering an education tax credit scholarship proposal that would target minority and low-income families. The administration is set Tuesday to unveil its budget blueprint.

“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 said in remarks Monday to the American Federation for Children, a nonprofit she helped lead before becoming education secretary.

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The education secretary has stressed that any Trump administration proposal would ensure state flexility, such as giving states like Michigan and others the right to opt out of a federal plan. Under the tax-credit plan, according to Politico, states would decide what kind of groups would accept donations from individuals and companies then award tuition scholarships to families.

DeVos on Monday said any school choice plan wouldn’t be dictated by the federal government and should embrace all kinds of schools, private and public.

“It shouldn’t matter if learning takes place in a traditional public school, a Catholic school, a charter school, a non-sectarian private school, a Jewish school, a home school, a magnet school, an online school, any customized combination of those schools — or in an educational setting yet to be developed,” she said. “Education should measure actual mastery of subject matter, not how much time you sit in a seat or where that seat is.”

DeVos added that there would be no “one-size-fits-all” approach to choice.

“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,” she said.

DeVos, who has said she took the job as education chief to return “power in education” to parents, communities and states, has drawn criticism for a lack of experience in administration as well as her stances on taxpayer-funded vouchers for private education.

DeVos said if a state opted out of the choice program, “that would be a terrible mistake on their part.”

“They will be hurting the children and families who can least afford it,” she said. “If politicians in a state block education choice, it means those politicians do not support equal opportunity for all kids.”

Her remarks Monday drew ire from some Michigan officials.

“One only has to look to Michigan to see that Betsy DeVos’ terrible educational experiment has been an unmitigated disaster. Her educational changes in Michigan have failed our kids,” said U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, in a statement, citing Michigan and Detroit charters ranking among the worst-performing schools.

“On top of doubling down on unaccountable charter expansion, the new plan proposed by Secretary DeVos and Republicans would give a huge tax break to the wealthiest Americans, disguised as a charitable contribution.”

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow said: “Parents’ worst fears were realized today when Secretary Betsy DeVos outlined the Trump administration’s plan to shift billions of dollars away from our nation’s public schools. These policies have already failed children and families in Michigan and now Secretary DeVos wants to implement them nationwide. Instead of working cooperatively to improve our schools, this administration is playing politics with the future of our children.”

Ken Coleman, a spokesman for the Detroit Federation of Teachers, rejected the plans as “anti-public school student.”

“Historically, the federal government has provided a much-needed safety net for our most vulnerable children and placed them first,” he said. “You will see organizations like DFT push back on policies and appropriations where streams of public accountability are not readily available for taxpayers.”

The school choice tax credit could be included as part of the broader tax reform initiative being discussed by the Trump administration as well as Republican House and Senate leaders.

The American Federation for Children said in early May that “a federal tax credit to inspire charitable giving by corporations and individuals to state nonprofits who provide scholarships for eligible children to attend a school of their parents’ choice would have the greatest impact for children in need.”

About 17 states have government-financed tax credit programs aiding more than 250,000 children, mostly minority and low-income families.

“Our nation’s students deserve to have their individual educations supported through state and local programs that provide parents with the most freedom and flexibility,” DeVos said in her remarks.

DeVos appears to be “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,” said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten in a statement late Monday. “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. No wonder the conservative Heritage Foundation criticized DeVos’ program as a new federal intervention.”

The federal tax credit idea wouldn’t be affected by the Michigan constitutional ban on direct and indirect funneling of public money to private schools. The Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution means the federal aid program would override a state ban, said Robert Sedler, a constitutional law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit.

The Republican-led Michigan Legislature sought to expand the scope of state aid to private schools this year by budgeting $2.5 million to reimburse parochial or other non-public schools for state mandates, including immunization compliance and safety drills. Several public school interest groups and others have sued to block the money, which they argue would be a “gateway” to school vouchers.

In 2000, Michigan voters defeated a ballot measure organized by DeVos and her allies that would have made school vouchers constitutional in the state.