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Is Trump’s Team Pessimistic About Its Big Education Plan’s Chances? This Could Be Why

By Andrew Ujifusa — October 01, 2019 4 min read
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On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway made the case for the Trump administration’s Education Freedom Scholarships proposal in a joint public appearance at the American Enterprise Institute. Yet DeVos and Conway didn’t sound particularly sanguine about the odds that the proposal—which would create federal tax credits for state-selected scholarship-granting organizations to support a variety of educational services—would actually pass Congress.

Discussing the $5 billion plan’s status on Capitol Hill, they criticized Congress for not taking up the idea. But they stopped short of claiming that there’s significant positive momentum for it, or showing much if any hope that the proposal will pass.

“You may want to ask them,” Conway said in a response to a question from the American Enterprise Institute’s Rick Hess about what it would take for Congress to give the proposal the green light. “They don’t seem to be here very often. And when they are, they’re focused on other things.” She also said Democrats’ opposition to the tax credits “hypocritical” and “somewhat maddening.” And DeVos said lawmakers should ask themselves why they oppose greater educational freedom, although she admitted that there is “a great resistance” to this.

Related: Check out my colleague Evie Blad’s new story on Betsy DeVos’ new rhetorical strategy to promote her agenda.

So why the lack of public optimism? Here are two potential reasons.

The Silence of the Spending Bills

First, and perhaps most importantly, while DeVos is right in the sense that the scholarships wouldn’t create or fund a new Washington program per se, it would still be administered by the U.S. Department of the Treasury. And in order for the Treasury Department to oversee the Freedom Scholarships, Congress would have to appropriate money for the purpose; this could be done without increasing the department’s overall budget.

However, in their fiscal 2020 appropriations bills, neither the House nor the Senate make any mention of money being appropriated to the Treasury Department to administer these scholarships. You won’t find any reference to the Education Freedom Scholarships in the bill language or in reports with key details about the legislation.

“The program would have to have authorizing language in addition to a line providing funding to run the program,” said Sarah Abernathy, the deputy executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, which advocates for federal education spending, and a former House staffer. “But if there is none of that in the FY 2020 bills, then the program would not exist in FY 2020.”

Most recently on this front, last month the Senate appropriations committee advanced this appropriations bill that did not mention the scholarships. Remember, the Senate appropriations process is run by Republicans, so it would be pretty hard to blame Democrats if the Senate ultimately leaves out authorization for the tax credits.

It’s possible that when the House and Senate negotiate a final spending package (when exactly that will happen is unclear) that Education Freedom Scholarships could be included. But it’s not a good sign for the proposal that so far that the two relevant spending bills so far have iced out the scholarships. And from a political perspective, if the Trump administration failed in its push for Congress to pass new (albeit differently constructed) school choice initiatives when the GOP controlled the House and Senate in 2017 and 2018, there’s no clear reason why Democrats now running the House would grant DeVos what she wants most out of Congress.

One irony in all this? Both House and Senate bills provide funding for the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Act, also known as the D.C. private school vouchers program, which is a long-standing part of federal law.

Here is the report on the Senate appropriations bill, and here is the report on the House legislation.

Cruz Bill Hits an Iceberg

If you need another sign that Congress has been remarkably uninterested in taking up the administration’s idea, look at the bill authorizing the scholarships from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. Cruz and DeVos made headlines when they unveiled the outlines of the proposal early this year, although Cruz’s bill differs from what Trump pitched because it would cap the tax credits at $10 billion annually instead of $5 billion.

Since it was referred to the Senate finance committee that same month, the Cruz bill it hasn’t budged, and there’s been no hearing on it. You can see the bill’s status here. There’s also a House bill from Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., that matches the $5 billion cap in Trump’s proposal. That hasn’t budged either.

Abernathy noted that in theory, an appropriations bill for the Treasury Department could simultaneously authorize Education Freedom Scholarships and appropriate money for administering them. But neither the House nor the Senate bill on Treasury appropriations does so.

One final note: There’s plenty of evidence that Education Freedom Scholarships are going to fall short on Capitol Hill (although never say never). Yet DeVos would also be pleased if, as a result of her energetic campaign for the scholarships and greater education choice in general, state leaders were ultimately motivated to expand charter schools, vouchers, education savings accounts, and other forms of K-12 choice.

How often DeVos will be able to point to such results is unclear. But it bears watching.

Image: U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, right discusses the Trump administration’s proposed Education Freedom Scholarships with Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway, center, and American Enterprise Institute Director of Education Policy Studies Rick Hess. (Screen capture from AEI)