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After two years of getting mired in the bureaucratic morass of the U.S. Department of Education, Betsy DeVos is finally taking action on something close to her heart: expanding school choice.

The education secretary and Michigan native is working with Republican members of Congress to push a $5 billion federal tax credit that would encourage states to adopt educational scholarship programs.

On Thursday, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Alabama, introduced legislation that would create the “Education Freedom Scholarships.”

State participation would be completely voluntary, and states would also have full control over the scope and purpose of their scholarship programs, as well as the scholarship granting organizations that would dole out donations to families from individuals and corporations (who would receive a federal tax credit for their contributions). States don’t have to include private schools at all -- scholarships could be directed to special education, transportation or apprenticeships.

Teachers unions, who argue public schools lack funding, should jump on board. If states choose not to participate, however, the financial benefits would go to other states.

The tax credit model has proven successful at the state level -- 18 states have already adopted tax credit choice programs. And it’s a framework DeVos has advocated for in her work before joining the Trump administration.

The legislation could open the door to broader school choice in states that have proven unfriendly to such options in the past. Half the states currently allow private school choice in some form, whether tax credits, vouchers or education savings accounts.

Michigan is one of the states most opposed to allowing any form of public dollars to flow to nonpublic schools. A nearly five-decade-old constitutional amendment created what’s known as a Blaine amendment blocking “direct or indirect” funding to private schools. These were largely designed out of anti-Catholic sentiment.

More than 35 other states have them, too, but Michigan’s is widely known as the worst for crushing innovative school choice programs.

DeVos knows this well. While she helped usher in charter schools in the 1990s, what she really wanted was to introduce private school choice. Her effort in 2000 to allow parents in struggling districts to use vouchers for private schools was soundly defeated by voters.

This federal tax credit could be Michigan’s best option for expanding school options under the current constitutional limitations. Since the tax credits are fully federal, there shouldn’t be any legal shortcomings.

That’s what has thrown use of 529 college savings accounts for K-12 schools into question in Michigan. The 2017 GOP tax cut opened the door to that option for families around the country, but since there are state tax perks in addition to the federal ones, the legality of letting those dollars flow into private schools in still in limbo here.

More: Jacques: 529s for private schools? Fat chance

Somewhat surprisingly, even school-choice friendly groups such as the Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute have come out against the federal tax credit concept, saying it is an affront to federalism and that this would open private schools to regulation.

As Lindsey Burke and Adam Michel of the Heritage Foundation write:

“The administration’s support of school choice is praiseworthy, but a federal tax-credit scholarship program poses a threat to education choice in the states, and undermines the goal of a streamlined federal tax code.”

These groups also would probably prefer the Education Department didn’t exist at all.

But since it does, encouraging states to expand choice programs and innovation is a worthy aim.

ijacques@detroitnews.com 
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