Diary

School Choice Must Continue to Be a Local Decision

By Robert Holland

The morning after the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee (HELPC) held a confirmation hearing for Michigander Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s pro-school-choice nominee to be the next U.S. secretary of education, a more important development on the choice front came from down Florida way.

In a 4–1 decision issued January 18, the Florida Supreme Court effectively terminated a legal challenge mounted by the state’s largest teacher union and its allies against the 15-year-old Florida Tax Credit (FTC), the largest program in the nation helping low-income and working-class families choose private schooling for their children. It left in place an appellate decision that the plaintiffs had no standing to bring the case.

If the state Supreme Court ultimately had voided the FTC, almost 100,000 underprivileged children (two-thirds of them black or Hispanic) would have had to exit schools of choice that were working for them and stream back into public schools that were not. All of that hurt and harm would have happened to satisfy the Florida Education Association’s (FEA) lust for control of money now going to private educational charity. Insanely, FEA wanted tax-credited corporate contributions to private scholarship organizations to be judicially designated as funds properly belonging to the public school, establishment including the unions.

Back in Washington, DC, HELPC’s three-hour hearing fell along predictable lines, with Republicans lavishly praising DeVos and mostly tossing her softball questions and Democrats pleasing their teacher-union benefactors by throwing high heat at the Michigan philanthropist’s record of advocacy for parental choice, particularly via charter schools and vouchers.

The most heated point of contention came after committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) insisted questions be limited to just one round, with each committee member receiving only five minutes of time to ask questions. Alexander cited as precedent the one-round format used when confirming Obama education secretary nominees Arne Duncan and John King. Almost all the Democrats subsequently devoted a portion of their time to protesting this restriction, thereby forfeiting time they could have used for questions.

Nevertheless, they had a point. Some other Trump nominees—notably Rex Tillerson, Trump’s pick for secretary of state, and Ben Carson, the president’s pick for secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development—had to answer follow-up questions in multiple rounds. Alexander gave the impression he was shielding DeVos, whose family has been a major donor to Republican candidates, from the possibility of stumbles that might jeopardize her confirmation. She had a few in the single round, but overall, acquitted herself well.

Topic A was the degree of accountability a DeVos-led federal Education Department would seek to impose on state and local school districts under the year-old Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the successor to No Child Left Behind. Democrats pressed DeVos to commit to enforcing all the regulations Secretary King spent the final year of the Obama administration devising. DeVos adroitly dodged the question by saying she would carefully review all the rules and regulations.

GOP members did not press her in turn to say how she might remove any vestiges of federal support for Common Core curricular standards, which candidate Trump repeatedly vowed to end. She probably would have ducked a direct answer to that as well, but at least GOP senators would have spoken up for concerned parents in all 50 states who despise Common Core standardization.

A big question unasked by committee members of either party is what sort of accountability, if any, the Trump administration might prescribe if it follows through with another Trump campaign promise to redirect $20 billion of existing federal spending to support states’ expansion of school choice. Should federal funding require participating private or charter schools to adhere to federalized assessments and standards, the result would be to diminish freedom of choice, not to expand it.

In truth, despite all the focus on DeVos’ deep devotion to school choice, the federal government has no constitutional power to force states to adopt school-choice programs. The 10th Amendment leaves control of education solely to the states and the people. Washington, DC can sponsor school choice in areas under its direct control (such as the District of Columbia, where children are benefitting from federal vouchers) and the Bureau of Indian Affairs schools.

If confirmed as secretary of education, DeVos could help the school-choice cause by working to lift the regulatory burden that stifles the innovation initiated by state and local stewards of public education. And Trump could help most significantly by nominating to the Supreme Court and lower courts jurists who will uphold the right of parents to choose the best schools for their children.

Robert Holland ([email protected]) is a senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute.