April 2019 Church & State Magazine | People & Events

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Feb. 28 endorsed a bill in Congress that would allocate billions to support private and religious schools through a backdoor voucher scheme.

The bill, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas.) and U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.), would allow individuals and corporations to donate money to entities that distribute vouchers and then receive a 100 percent tax-credit refund.

Plans like this exist in several states and are seen as a way of getting around language in many state constitutions that bars the allocation of taxpayer money to religious schools. Americans United and other critics maintain that these plans are merely backdoor ways to distribute vouchers.

The Trump administration plan would cost an estimated $5 billion per year. An Education Department official told The Washington Post that there are ways to make up that lost revenue, but specified no such examples.

President Donald Trump campaigned in favor of vouchers in 2016, and his appointment of DeVos to the top education job – despite her lack of experience in the field – was seen as a strong signal that the administration would aggressively push for voucher plans. But thus far, there has been little movement in that direction since Trump took office.

Trump endorsed “school choice” during his State of the Union address in February but offered no specific proposal.

The National Coalition for Public Education, an umbrella organization co-chaired by Americans United, issued a statement criticizing the proposal: “Public schools serve 90 percent of American children; therefore, taxpayer dollars should fund those schools, not private, often religious schools,” the statement read. “Tax-credit programs nationwide have been found to have the same problems inherent to all voucher programs: They do not provide better educational opportunities for students or improve academic achievement. And, even more so than traditional voucher programs, they are especially susceptible to accountability problems – inviting additional waste, fraud and abuse. ... Similar federal tax credit voucher proposals have been derided by both supporters of public education and supporters of local control. If Secretary DeVos truly wants to improve education for students across the country, the solution is to fund our public schools rather than diverting taxpayer dollars to private schools.”

In related news:

DeVos announced March 12 that the federal government will no longer enforce a provision in a federal law that bars religious groups from providing certain taxpayer-funded services in private schools. The services are mainly aimed at low-income or non-English speaking students, and under the law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, providers must be secular. DeVos claims that not allowing religious groups to provide the services is a form of discrimination.

Americans United disagreed.

“Betsy DeVos is neither the Sup­reme Court nor Congress,” said Mag­gie Garrett, AU’s vice president for public policy. “She does not get to unilaterally declare that a statute is unconstitutional, especially with a provision that is designed to protect church-state separation, a bedrock of our democracy.”