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DeVos: ‘Teachers’ Unions Are the Only Thing Standing in the Way’ of School Choice

By Alyson Klein — January 23, 2019 4 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Wednesday that the public wants school choice and that teachers’ unions are the only real impediment. But some school choice proposals have met with resistance even from congressional Republicans and conservative organizations, including the Heritage Foundation, where she made her remarks.

“We know that most recent polling data has shown conclusively that people want to have choices,” DeVos said in a “fireside chat” with Heritage’s president, Kay Cole James during National School Choice Week. “They want choices for their kids. Sixty-seven percent of the people in this country—two thirds—support school choice. The only thing standing in the way is the teachers’ unions that have a personal financial vested interest.”

DeVos also called on Congress to renew the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, which was first created back in 2004, and is currently serving about 1,650 students in the District of Columbia, according to Heritage. DeVos said she’d like to see that number increased. And she said she’d like lawmakers to bring “clear and concise” stability to the program, which gives scholarships to low-income students to attend private schools, has often been a political football on Capitol Hill.

But voucher opponents were quick to cite studies that have shown students who receive vouchers through the program don’t perform as well in math as their peers.

“Education Secretary Betsy DeVos ignored the myriad problems with the Washington, D.C., private school voucher program during today’s event with the Heritage Foundation,” said the National Coalition for Public Education in a statement. “Repeated studies conducted by the federal government have clearly demonstrated that students in D.C.'s voucher program perform worse academically than their peers in public school. And government investigations have repeatedly shown that the program suffers from serious accountability problems.”

Tension on School Choice

Teachers’ unions aren’t the only organizations that have blocked some of the administration’s school choice proposals. Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike rejected DeVos’ proposals for a $1 billion initiative to expand choice, including private school vouchers, as well as a smaller $250 million program.

Republicans representing rural areas are skepitcal that those programs would benefit their students, who often don’t have nearby charter or private schools. And some conservative Republicans and organizations, including the Heritage Foundation aren’t enthusiastic about proposals that would further choice by creating new federal programs.

For instance, back in 2017, the Trump administration was considering creating a federal tax credit scholarship program, which would have allowed individuals and corporations to get a break on their taxes for donating to scholarship-granting organizations. But Lindsey Burke, the director of the Center for Education Policy at the Heritage Foundation, worried that would end up creating a giant new bureaucracy to administer a new government program. The proposal never gained traction.

And although DeVos and Heritage each support expanding school choice for military-connected students, they have different ideas about how to make that happen.

Heritage wanted to pay for the proposal using about $1 billion from Impact Aid, which helps schools make up for a federal presence, such as a Native American reservation or a military base. But the Trump administration didn’t think diverting money from a popular program was the right strategy.

DeVos had not publicly endorsed any military school bill. But she had said that a proposal from Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. to use some defense dollars to create a pilot school choice program on military bases was worth a look. So far, a new federal investment in school choice for military-connected students hasn’t come to fruition.

If there are any hard feelings over those disagreements, DeVos didn’t refer to them directly on stage.

“We have today a president who supports choice now. We have an administration that is supportive. We have many on Capitol Hill that are supportive,” she said. “And I just hope that Heritage will stand with us as we continue to advance choices, not only for kids here in the District of Columbia, but across this country.”

“Absolutely,” Cole James said.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., on Feb. 22. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

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