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Indianapolis

Cheick Diallo started out Tuesday morning looking a little nervous. In a few minutes, the high school senior would be giving a presentation to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who decided to visit Providence Cristo Rey High School while she was in town.

It turns out Diallo didn’t have anything to be nervous about. He, along with five classmates, told DeVos about their experiences at the school and the corporate work study program that makes Cristo Rey schools unique. Detroit is home to one of these Catholic schools, too.

For Diallo, who has clocked many hours at Eli Lilly, the global pharmaceutical company based in Indianapolis, the experience at Cristo Rey has been “life changing.” He’s gained confidence, direction and discovered he’s an extrovert.

His family moved to the U.S. from Gambia in West Africa when he was in elementary school. Diallo says the language and cultural barriers were difficult at first, but his family always valued education.

When he learned about Cristo Rey through a flier in the mail, Diallo knew this school was right for him. And through the school’s scholarships, as well as the Indiana voucher program, he was able to attend the school — something he wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise with six siblings at home.

“The voucher program really enables me to go to a school that I want to go to and will cater to my skills and my needs, which is something that not every student can say,” Diallo says.

That hits at the heart of the school choice movement, which DeVos has championed for much of her career, and which was celebrated at the American Federation for Children’s annual policy summit this week in Indianapolis. Diallo is just one of many students who have benefited from private school choice. About 450,000 students in 25 states and Washington, D.C., have access to private schools through vouchers and tax credits.

DeVos served as chair of the organization prior to her current role, and she spoke to the group Monday.

Indiana serves as an excellent example of what private school choice should look like. The state’s Choice Scholarship Program was launched in 2011, and it’s one of the largest and fastest growing voucher programs in the U.S. The program is open to low- and middle-income families, with pro-rated vouchers depending on income. This school year, there are more than 34,000 students participating and the average voucher is $4,024.

Vouchers have helped the families who choose schools like Providence Cristo Rey.

They work to “provide access to an education a family might have thought was out of reach,” says Joseph Heidt, the school’s president and CEO.

Heidt estimates that most parents only spend 1-2 percent ($260) of the $13,300 tuition.

Yet in Michigan, parents don’t have access to that kind of funding. The state constitution blocks, thanks to a voter-approved initiative, any public funds heading to private schools. Even a modest $2.5 million line item to reimburse private schools for meeting state health and safety mandates is being challenged in the courts.

DeVos stresses that states, not the federal government, are best suited to oversee their education system. It’s no surprise that she and President Trump are suggesting a 13 percent cut to the bloated $70 billion education budget, while also suggesting about $400 million to expand charter schools and private choice efforts. That’s a far cry, however, from Trump’s campaign promise of $20 billion for similar programs.

Diallo graduates this month and plans to head to Notre Dame in the fall to study neuroscience. He’s grateful.

As he told told DeVos, “Thank you for what you do and facilitating an environment where we can learn.”

ijacques@detroitnews.com

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