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Betsy DeVos, Lawmakers, Students Make School Choice Sales Pitch on Capitol Hill

By Alyson Klein — January 18, 2018 3 min read

Washington, D.C.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and school choice advocates descended on Capitol Hill to cheerlead for their favorite issue—without offering any specifics about how lawmakers might get new choice legislation over the finish line in an election year that’s expected to be tough for Republicans.

During the National School Choice Week event, DeVos lead children from local charter and private schools in a cheer: “When parents have a choice, kids have a chance.”

“You have been able to make a choice to be in a school that’s working for you,” DeVos told them. “I hope you will go out from here and you will tell your story, and you will encourage others who haven’t yet joined us to do so because for every student here there are dozens more who haven’t been able to make these choices. ... Join me in raising your voices, I’m here to fight on your behalf, I’m here to fight all children’s behalf.”

DeVos, a philanthropist who dedicated millions of dollars to expanding choice before taking the helm of the department, is the first sitting secretary to speak at the school choice rally. It has been held three times on Capitol Hill.

Last year, many school choice advocates saw DeVos’ appointment as secretary—backed by a Republican Congress—as the best opportunity for a big federal school choice initiative in decades. But lawmakers rejected the administration’s budget pitches on choice, including a $250 million private school voucher program, and a push to allow school districts to use some of their federal funding for public school choice.

And behind the scenes, Trump threw cold water on an attempt to include a federal tax-credit scholarship in the recent tax overhaul, sources say. In a small victory for choice, Congress did allow families to use 529 college savings plans for K-12 private school tuition, as part of the tax legislation.

But even ardent school choice fans argue that isn’t likely to help many low-income families cover the cost of private school, since they may not have extra funds to set aside into the accounts. DeVos said she agreed, and would continue to push for choice initiatives for poor children.

That’s likely to be a tall order during an election year in which Republicans are expected to lose seats in the House and potentially the Senate.

We Have a Dream as Well’

Still, there were plenty of high-profile speakers at the event who made it clear that they will continue to advocate for the issue, even though they didn’t explain how they planned to sell choice to skeptical colleagues.

Speakers included GOP Rep. Luke Messer of Indiana, who is the co-chair of the School Choice Caucus in the House; Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who helped lead the fight to get 529 plans included in the tax overhaul and Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C. the chairwoman of the House education committee. Cruz talked about the 529 amendment he got included in the tax overhaul measure, which needed the support of Vice President Mike Pence to get over the finish-line.

“We passed what is the most significant federal school choice legislation in the history of our country,” Cruz said. He linked the school choice movement to Martin Luther King’s fight for civil rights: “We have a dream as well. A dream of every child being able to get an excellent education ... [and that education] being up to the parents, being up to the kids.”

Foxx, though, acknowledged that going further won’t be easy, at least on the federal level.

“We’ve always been a country that has promoted choice in post-secondary education level,” she said. She argued that lawmakers need to extend that to K-12, saying, “We want to educate members of Congress who don’t feel the same way that some of us do.”

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Photo: Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos at a Capitol Hill event for National School Choice Week. (Alyson Klein/Education Week)

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