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Republicans and Betsy DeVos’ school choice proposal sparks criticism from left and right alike

Some conservatives also say the school choice tax credit is a bad idea.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill, June 5, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill, June 5, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos gave her support Thursday to a proposal from Republican lawmakers that would provide $5 billion each year in tax credits going toward donations for privately-run education programs. But the proposal has been criticized by both those on the left and right.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-AL) said they will introduce the legislation, which would create a 100 percent credit for individual and corporate contributions to scholarship funds allowed by states, with a maximum credit of 10 percent of a person’s adjusted gross income or 5 percent of a business’ net taxable income. States will be able to make their own rules in terms of where the credits are used and which students are eligible for them.

Democrats in both chambers have said they will not support the legislation because they say the focus needs to be on improvements to public education, but there has also been criticism from influential conservative think tanks who think this could lead to more oversight of these schools in a Democratic administration.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), ranking member on the Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee, said the tax credit is “dead on arrival,” according to the Associated Press.

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“Secretary DeVos keeps pushing her anti-public school agenda despite a clear lack of support from parents, students, teachers, and even within her own party,” Murray said in a statement. “Congress has repeatedly rejected her privatization efforts, and she should expect nothing less here.”

The bill would also struggle to make it through the Democratic-controlled House. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, said Democratic lawmakers “will not waste time on proposals that undermine public education.”

There has been similar opposition from prominent conservative and liberal think tanks in Washington, D.C., but for different reasons.

Neil Campbell, director of innovation for K-12 Education Policy at Center for American Progress, said that some states will certainly find the policy appealing. (ThinkProgress is an editorially independent project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.) Eighteen states already had tax credit scholarships, but the average value is fairly small for some of these scholarships, he said. In Pennsylvania, the average scholarship value was only $2,420 for the 2016 to 2017 school year. Some state scholarships do cover full tuition at many private schools.

“I think states could view as sort of free money, free federal resources to boost these kind of tax credit scholarship programs that exist,” said Campbell, who focuses on personalized learning and charter schools.

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And in a lot of those states the scholarship amounts are really low. These programs are not serving super low-income kids if they’re only offering $2,400 of tuition help,” he said. “That would still require families to come up with either additional scholarships or many thousands more to pay private school tuition, even at lower-cost religious schools or parochial schools.”

If this legislation is passed, however, there is no guarantee that students from low-income families will actually benefit because scholarships will function differently in each state. Some states might increase the scholarship amounts to cover full tuition with the scholarship, but others could simply open up the scholarship to more students and keep the scholarship amounts the same.

On the right, the concerns have been about what requirements could look like under future administrations.

Lindsey Burke, director of The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Education Policy, and Adam Michael, senior policy analyst in the Grover M. Hermann Center for the Federal Budget, outlined their concerns in a statement on the think tank’s website.

Future administrations could use a federal tax-credit scholarship to require that schools adhere to certain admissions and accountability policies. That would mean the federal government could further dictate testing, reporting, academic content, and even bathroom policies for all schools involved.

“This proposal is also outside of the federal government’s jurisdiction. It would grow, rather than reduce, federal intervention in education. It would be better for the Education Department to keep highlighting the great advances that states have made in school choice.

Corey A. DeAngelis, an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute, a think tank that described itself as “dedicated to the principles of individual liberty, limited government, free markets, and peace” wrote in The 74 that even if the legislation passed, “a lightly regulated federal school choice program under Trump today could easily turn into a heavily regulated program under someone like Bernie Sanders tomorrow.”

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Campbell said conservatives are right to worry. Democrats would likely focus on greater oversight, given their concerns that there is anti-LGBTQ discrimination and discrimination against students with disabilities at some of these private schools.

“Their fear is that by having a federal initiative and program that you’re inviting future administrations to put in requirements and regulations that they would not want to impact what states are doing in this area,” Campbell said. “I think that’s certainly fair because it’s a safe assumption that a Democratic administration might view this differently than the current administration.”

He added, “There are big concerns that a lot of private school voucher tax credit scholarship programs provide some support to schools that discriminate against LGBTQ kids or that don’t have to provide services to students with disabilities so that’s why they have that fear and I understand why they have that fear.” 

Congress did not embrace DeVos’ previous efforts at increasing charter school funding and federal vouchers for private schools. Campbell said that the reason Republican lawmakers and DeVos may be moving forward with this now is to give something to conservative school choice supporters so that they know the administration and Republican lawmakers still care about this issue. It has garnered positive attention among some of those school choice advocates. Chester Finn, president emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative nonprofit education policy think tank, wrote positively of the initiative that he hopes “it, or something like it, eventually becomes real.”