­­­President Donald J. Trump and Education Secretary Betsy De­Vos continue to push for private school vouchers – even though they still haven’t laid out a specific plan for what their federally funded program would look like.

Following up on his campaign promise ultimately to funnel $20 billion in taxpayer money to fund vouchers and similar programs, Trump introduced his proposed 2018 fiscal year budget on May 23 that would set aside $250 million to expand vouchers.

At the same time, the federal spending plan would slash the overall education budget by more than $10 billion – about 13 percent. So Trump is proposing to rob Peter to pay Paul by taking desperately needed taxpayer funds from the public school system that educates the vast majority of American schoolchildren and diverting the money into private, mostly religious schools that educate a select few.

However, the budget does not spell out any details for how the voucher money would be spent. And despite twice appearing before members of Congress and giving a prime-time speech on vouchers, DeVos hasn’t been any more forthcoming.

On the eve of the budget presentation, DeVos was a keynote speaker at a conference sponsored by the American Federation for Children, the pro-voucher advocacy group she chaired before she joined Trump’s administration. The speech was billed as an explanation in detail of the Trump voucher plan, but DeVos delivered more platitudes than policy proposals.

The only new information DeVos offered was that states wouldn’t be forced to participate in a federal voucher program.

“When it comes to education, no solution, not even ones we like, should be dictated or run from Washington, D.C.,” DeVos said – but she quickly added that it would be a “terrible mistake” if states opted out.

As the conference was held in Indiana, DeVos and Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb (R) lauded that state’s voucher program. It has grown to become one of the country’s largest under former governor, now Vice President Mike Pence. But a University of Notre Dame study in late 2015 found that voucher-subsidized Indiana students performed worse in math and showed no improvement in reading.

In a May 23 statement denouncing Trump’s education budget, the National Coalition for Public Education (NCPE) noted that the Indiana voucher program isn’t alone in its lack of academic success: “Recent research in Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio and Washington, D.C., is clear: Students who use vouchers perform worse academically than their peers who do not use vouchers.”

NCPE, which Americans United co-chairs, noted several other concerns: “[V]ouchers underserve many students, including low-income students who often cannot afford private schools even with a voucher, students in rural areas who may have no other educational options nearby, and students with disabilities who often cannot find private schools to serve their needs.”

Additionally, vouchers lack accountability to taxpayers, threaten the religious freedom of both taxpayers and religious schools and can deprive students of the rights guaranteed to public school students, NCPE pointed out. (For more information about the many recent studies outlining the shortcomings on vouchers, see “Save Our Schools!” in the May issue of Church & State.)

Members of Congress pressed DeVos on several of these issues when she testified about the budget proposal during two recent Congressional hearings.

On May 24, the day after the budget was formally presented, DeVos answered questions from members of the House Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services Education and Related Agencies.

Several representatives asked De­Vos whether she would support federal funding for schools that discriminate against LGBTQ children and families, that don’t provide federally required services to children with disabilities or that don’t meet mandated education standards.

To most of these questions, DeVos responded that she would allow the states “flexibility” to decide whether their voucher schools are required to meet federal laws.

U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) pushed DeVos on whether it was acceptable for an Indiana voucher school to proclaim that it may deny admission to LGBTQ students or students from LGBTQ families. Clark several times interrupted DeVos’ evasive answers, finally asking: “So if I understand your testimony – I want to make sure I get this right: There is no situation of discrimination or exclusion that if a state approved it for its voucher program that you would step in and say that’s not how we are going to use our federal dollars?”

DeVos ultimately answered: “I go back to the bottom line – is we believe parents are the best equipped to make choices for their children’s schooling and education decisions, and too many children are trapped in schools that don’t work for them. We have to do something different. We have to do something different than continuing a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach. And that is the focus. And states and local communities are best equipped to make these decisions.”

To which Clark responded, “I am shocked that you cannot come up with one example of discrimination that you would stand up for students.”

U.S. Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.) asked DeVos whether it was fair that students who require services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) are often asked to waive those rights when they attend voucher schools.

“Each state deals with this issue in their own manner,” DeVos answered. She referenced the Florida tuition tax credit scheme – a form of vouchers that many suspect DeVos and Trump are leaning toward for their federal program – that allows students with disabilities to attend private schools with public money. Florida requires voucher recipients to give up their IDEA rights.

U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) voiced concerns about private voucher schools taking public money but not being held to the same educational standards as public schools. He spoke of his home state’s troubled Milwaukee voucher scheme, the country’s oldest voucher program he called a “failed experiment.” Pocan pointed to a May 16 NPR report on the city’s program, which noted, “Over the years, though, most voucher recipients have performed no better academically than their public school peers. In some cases they’ve done worse.”

Pocan noted one Milwaukee voucher school in which none of the children were proficient in math and only 7 percent were considered to be proficient in English. He reported that another such school believed children could learn to read simply by touching a book.

When Pocan asked DeVos what accountability standards would be put in place for schools receiving federal dollars, DeVos returned to her standard answer that states would decide “what kind of flexibility they are going to allow.”

DeVos faced similar questions on June 7 when she testified again about the budget, this time before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee. For this hearing, her canned answer shifted from letting states decide whether to follow federal laws, to: “Let me be clear, schools that receive federal funds must follow federal law. Period.”

DeVos’ answer is not as straightforward as it sounds. Voucher proponents argue the taxpayer funding for voucher programs goes to students, not directly to schools. They use that logic to claim voucher schools don’t get federal money and therefore don’t have to follow federal laws – even though taxpayer money is funding student tuition.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) pointed out to DeVos the discrepancy in whether voucher schools must follow all federal laws: “Those laws are somewhat foggy in that area. So I want to be absolutely clear what you’re saying: Are you saying that if you have a private school … that they will not be allowed under your program to discriminate against LGBTQ students?”

“Senator, I said it before, and I’ll say it again,” DeVos replied. “Schools that receive federal funds must follow federal law.” When Merkley again noted the lack of clarity and pressed her, DeVos said: “In areas where the law is unsettled, this department is not going to be issuing decrees. That is a matter for Congress and the courts to settle.”

When U.S. Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) asked whether a private school accepting federal money would have to accept any child who applied, including students with disabilities who are eligible for IDEA services, DeVos again spoke of schools accepting federal money following federal laws. But when Reed, who called DeVos’ answers “rather cryptic,” asked for clarification, DeVos noted that parents choose the schools to which they send their children with vouchers – implying it’s in parents’ hands whether their children attend schools that follow the law.

Even Republicans voiced concerns about the Trump-DeVos education budget, though their objections were centered more on the budget’s program cuts. U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the Republican chairman of the Senate subcommittee, told DeVos at the outset of the hearing: “This is a difficult budget request to defend. I think it’s likely that the kinds of cuts that are proposed in this budget will not occur, so we need to fully understand your priorities and why they are your priorities.”

NCPE urged Congress to reject the Trump-DeVos education plan: “We are greatly disappointed that President Trump’s budget would spend $250 million of taxpayer money to fund a private school voucher program. It is incumbent upon our President to ensure that all students have access to quality public schools. …We believe that public funds should fund public schools and, therefore, we urge Congress to reject this budget’s voucher proposal.”

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