by Inez Feltscher Stepman
While education insiders were eager for details on a proposed federal tax credit scholarship program, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos gave a uniting and upbeat speech to the school choice crowd assembled at the American Federation for Children dinner last evening. Instead of details on a potentially divisive federal school choice program, the secretary chose to paint a picture of an innovative, choice-based future for the American education system, where students will not be consigned to a school that does not work for their needs merely because of their zip codes.
The secretary made sure to include the future innovations spurred by the customization opportunities inherent in the education savings account model, noting that families would be able to take advantage of “education setting[s] yet to be developed.” With Arizona recently expanding eligibility for its groundbreaking ESA program to all children, the secretary’s comments signaled the administration will back these most exciting of educational choice options, and will not favor traditional vouchers or tax credit scholarship programs over ESAs.
She also gave a strong rebuttal to the drumbeat to impose the same kind of top-down “accountability” that has failed in the public system onto the new choice sector, noting that true accountability comes from parent choice rather than D.C. bureaucracies. Top-down accountability through high-stakes testing and federal overreach has notably failed to deliver meaningful academic improvement in the public system, and transplanting its lackluster track record onto the private choice context will only result in homogenizing diverse options for parents and students, increasingly rendering “choice in name only.”
Secretary DeVos highlighted the uphill battle the education choice movement continues to fight with proponents of the status quo, such as teachers’ unions, saying that the opposition “will not go quietly into the night.” However, DeVos underscored the moral nature of the battle ahead, saying “our cause is both right, and it is just [sic].”
While the federal government should not be in the school choice business – and DeVos made sure to note states are ultimately responsible for their education policies – there are appropriate measures that can be taken at the federal level to encourage choice in the states. First, as demonstrated by the secretary at this very dinner, President Trump and DeVos can utilize the enormous power of the bully pulpit. An enthusiastic rally in support of educational choice from the president would do wonders to get choice across the finish line in red states (such as Texas) that currently struggle to pass programs.
Other federal opportunities to advance choice include solidifying and enlarging the successful D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, allowing Native American students in abysmally-performing Bureau of Indian Affairs schools access to ESAs, and offering choice options to military families. Additionally, expanding 529 savings account programs to include K-12 expenditures would afford some measure of educational choice to families in blue states unlikely to pass private school choice programs. Such an expansion would help families currently struggling with the financial burden of paying for a public system that does not serve them alongside the expense of their own children’s educations.
Secretary DeVos closed her speech by comparing the current educational system to Henry Ford’s famous assembly line. The secretary referenced the old joke that customers could purchase a Model T in any color they wanted, as long as that color was black. Likewise, our current education monopoly is a “closed system that relies on one size fits all.” With Monday’s speech, the new administration is making it clear that an outdated, one-size-fits-all system is not good enough for America’s children or our future.