Betsy DeVos Tests a Rhetorical Twist on 'School Choice'
Recent speeches twin 'education' with 'freedom'
When one of the nation's highest-profile and most divisive supporters of school choice went on an interstate, back-to-school tour last month, she largely steered clear of using the phrase "school choice" at all.
Instead, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who used school visits in six states to promote her federal tax-credit scholarship proposal, referred to "education freedom," a rebranding that suggests options that go beyond being expected to choose a school—options like mixing and matching components to build an educational experience from scratch.
Amid polarizing debates over school choice, can new language move the needle on public opinion, especially among critics who've called for more attention to the needs of traditional public schools?
As candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination and lawmakers in states like California have engaged in debates over charter schools—the publicly funded, independently run schools that typically have been seen as a more broadly supported choice option—DeVos has continued to cast a more dramatic vision that aims further out on the horizon.
In addition to district-run public schools, DeVos's recent tour included several charters with innovative approaches, multiple private faith-based schools that enroll students who rely on public voucher programs to help fund their educations, and even a meeting with a Christian home-school alliance in Pennsylvania. That's in contrast to education secretaries from previous administrations, who largely traveled to public schools.
"Doing better begins by expanding freedom," DeVos said at a kickoff event at St. Marcus Lutheran School in Milwaukee, a city she called the "birthplace of education freedom" because of its long-running voucher program.
"This isn't about picking a school building," she said. "That's thinking too small. Instead, think about unleashing thousands of not yet imagined ways for students of all ages to learn."
DeVos has focused her efforts on a proposed $5 billion annual "Education Freedom Scholarship" program that would provide federal tax credits for scholarship contributions in states that choose to participate.
In speeches, she paints a picture of using tax-credit scholarships to custom-build an education, cobbling together elements like apprenticeship programs, home schooling, private tutoring, and part-time attendance at faith-based schools, or using services like private special education programs to supplement a public school education.
"If you don't like to study behind a desk and learn better in a lab or in a garden or between skyscrapers, you can do that," she told students in Milwaukee. "If you want hands-on experiences to help decide your learning pathway, you can have those. You should be free to learn in any way and in any place that works for you."
DeVos intentionally replaced "school choice" with "education freedom," on her tour, said Liz Hill, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education.
"Too often when people think of the term 'school choice' they think of picking one building over another building, or one type of school over another type of school," Hill said. "But her education freedom agenda is much broader than that."
A Critical Response
DeVos's efforts come as advocates for private school choice watch a potentially game-changing case before the U.S. Supreme Court that centers on state policies that restrict the use of public funds in religious schools.
The Trump administration's tax-credit scholarship proposal, first unveiled in February, was cheered by some supporters who believe that students need more educational options. But the plan has divided even some supporters of private school choice.
The Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank aligned with many of the Trump administration's educational priorities, said vouchers and tax-credit scholarship programs are better left to states, citing concerns that federal involvement could open the door to additional regulations for participating private schools under future administrations.
Civil rights groups and teachers' unions argued that the proposal would lead to a reduction in tax revenues, hurting traditional public schools that are already struggling with too few resources. Rather than search for alternatives, officials need to focus on providing additional funding to public schools, they've said.
"Our administrators, educators, and community members work together to put our students first," Rockford Education Association President Mel Gilfillan told Fox 39 as the union's members protested at a public high school DeVos toured in Rockford, Ill. "We're the ones who make sure every child has access to a high-quality public education, not Secretary DeVos."
DeVos has been a lightning rod throughout her tenure. As Democratic presidential candidates seek coveted endorsements from teacher's unions, DeVos is one of the Trump officials they most frequently mention. South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg even ran fundraising ads targeting her.
"Her unpopularity has tarnished the very things she's advocating for," said Patrick McGuinn, an associate professor of political science at Drew University who has studied education policy and reform.
That's despite some public support for school choice, he said. McGuinn noted a recent poll by the journal Education Next that showed a slight uptick in public support for charter schools, and other polls that show some stronger support for charters among black Democrats than among their white peers. Among respondents to the EdNext poll, 55 percent said they would support "a proposal [to] give all families with children in public schools a wider choice, by allowing them to enroll their children in private schools instead, with government helping to pay the tuition."
New messaging can help some people more fully consider an idea they may have otherwise rejected, said Rita Kirk, a communications professor at Southern Methodist University who studies political language and public opinion. Even controversial pieces of legislation, like the post 9/11 USA PATRIOT Act, use compelling language to sell an idea, she said.
"Let's take the fence-sitters," Kirk said. "If somebody were to say, 'Don't you want people to have the freedom to choose where to educate your children?' I think your first reaction may be more favorable than unfavorable."
DeVos has made similar pushes in the past, including a campaign to "rethink school" by considering alternative approaches to education. Her critics argue that private choice proposals aren't realistic for many families. They accuse her of neglecting the public schools that most students attend.
"How can you tell if the Secretary of Education is an ideologue whose only goal is to privatize and profit off of public education? You'll know when her back to school tour looks like this," American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten tweeted.
And DeVos faced criticism from civil rights groups after HuffPost reported that one of her stops included a Catholic school that accepts public vouchers but doesn't admit transgender students.
As DeVos pushes access beyond public schools, charter school advocates are under a brighter spotlight as well. DeVos is a vocal supporter of charters and has called for more funding for them, said Todd Ziebarth, senior vice president of state advocacy at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
"Obviously the downside is, given how unpopular she is, that there is that connection made, that knee-jerk reaction that folks on the far left have that 'Anything she supports, I'm going to oppose,'" he said.
Schools that DeVos visited anticipated some pushback, said Scott Bess, the head of school at Purdue Polytechnic High School in Indianapolis.
At the charter school, students learn through projects that push them to find creative solutions to big questions. Recently, students responded to world hunger by proposing ideas like harvesting crickets as a source of protein and an app that cuts down on waste by warning users when food is set to expire.
Bess said he hoped the attention to his school would help other educators see its approach and believe it could be adapted in their own schools. It didn't bother him that DeVos used her tour to push for another model of choice.
"It's one thing to say we're all about school choice, but not that school choice," he said, adding that he is troubled by private schools that restrict students based on test scores or personal beliefs.
At St. Marcus Lutheran School, nearly all of the 900 elementary and middle school students use $8,000 vouchers from the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, and the school raises an additional $2,000 per student to cover costs, Superintendent Henry Tyson said.
A veteran of school choice debates, Tyson is doubtful that new messaging will sway some of its most entrenched opponents.
"There isn't currently a platform for even a sensible conversation about education because everybody is so polarized," he said.
How DeVos frames her plan may be a moot point, said McGuinn, of Drew University. Without adequate congressional support, the scholarship bill was "dead on arrival," he said.
And even as DeVos championed the ambitious proposal, she acknowledged that the president hasn't made education a big focus.
"He could talk about education more," DeVos told the Detroit News as she made a stop in her home state of Michigan. "It's not been the top two or three items that he has been focused on. There have been a few other things that have taken his attention."
Vol. 39, Issue 07, Page 7Published in Print: October 2, 2019, as DeVos Tests a Rhetorical Twist on 'School Choice'