Last week, United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos visited our state to speak in Colorado Springs at an event organized by Parents Challenge to celebrate the 20thanniversary of the organization’s founding. As now seems to be the case with most public officials, DeVos was greeted by picketers, some of whom seemed to have little to offer aside from crude slogans and vulgar posters.
Today the Colorado Springs Independent published an expansive piece on the Secretary’s visit and the accompanying protests. Though it is presented as an informative account, the article relies heavily on the testimonies of protesters and opponents and thus, perhaps unsurprisingly, paints a highly unfavorable image of DeVos, her policy agenda, and educational choice in general: For instance, the article ends with a brief discussion of the Secretary’s Education Freedom Scholarships while citing only the opinion of a Colorado Education Association Vice President, who offers no substantive critique but says only that “Betsy DeVos and her corporate agenda are bad for students, bad for public education […] Her harmful education policies are not welcome in Colorado.”
In light of this, it seems worthwhile to look at the Education Freedom Scholarship proposal beyond the context of groups chanting “down, down with corporations.”
Proposed this past winter, the program provides for an annual federal tax credit totaling $5 billion, which matches private donations at a dollar-for-dollar rate. Really, this is the extent of it: beyond the tax credit itself, the rest of the program is to be handled by the individual participating states. Participating is key here, as states are free to decide whether they will take part in the program or not. It is up to the states to establish the parameters by which student eligibility is to be determined, how participating schools are selected, and what organizations are to be in charge of distributing the scholarships to the families which are to then determine how the money is spent, be it on traditional K-12 education, support programs, or career training.
A Heritage Foundation study from March offers an insightful critique of the proposed scholarship tax credit program. Most importantly, the authors argue that because education is a responsibility constitutionally delegated to the states, implementing a school choice program at the federal level may end up subjecting private schools and educational choice in general to unforeseeable layers of regulation that a future administration may try to establish. In other words, by enacting a federal policy like the Education Freedom Scholarship, proponents of school choice may in fact run the risk of reversing the gains that state level choice advocates have made over the past two decades.
Whether one fully agrees with the Heritage assessment or not, such analysis (and even criticism) is obviously far more worthwhile than mere yelling and parking lot sloganeering, which stands to offer nothing productive or helpful to students and families.
Finally, we wish you a happy Fourth of July and hope that especially tomorrow you join us, education policy nerds, in appreciating the uniqueness of the American education system which affords levels of freedom and local control that are truly without equal across the world.