U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Lt. Gov. Dan Forest promoted a new federal school choice program Wednesday that could allow more families to attend private schools or to homeschool their children.
The Education Freedom Scholarship Program would give federal tax credits to individuals and businesses who voluntarily donate money that states could use for things like private school scholarships, homeschooling, apprenticeships and a variety of other educational programs.
If approved by Congress, it could generate $5 billion a year nationally, with DeVos saying North Carolina could receiving $162 million annually to enhance its school choice efforts.
“There are too many kids stuck in schools that aren’t working for them,” DeVos said at a roundtable discussion held at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh. “They don’t have other alternatives. This is one path forward. It’s not the only answer, but it is something that needs to be tried.”
DeVos made her presentation at a meeting co-chaired by Forest and attended by school-choice advocates. Forest, a Republican, praised the program as a way to customize educational opportunities like his family did when they homeschooled their four children.
“Every parent should have the opportunity to select the best educational opportunity for their student, whatever it may be,” Forest said.
The program, which DeVos first announced in February, faces an uphill battle in Congress.
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the Senate Education Committee, has called the plan “dead on arrival” and a case of DeVos “pushing an anti-public school agenda,” the Associated Press reported.
DeVos said the program is opposed by “defenders of what is” who are invested in the current education system as, well as people who are afraid of change. But she expressed optimism that the program will become law.
“I think that educational freedom is an inevitability,” DeVos said. “It’s not a matter of if. It’s a matter of when.”
Locally, Kris Nordstrom, education finance and policy consultant for the N.C. Justice Center’s Education and Law Project, said the proposed scholarship program is a terrible idea. He said it will likely result in more money going to help subsidize the tuition costs for parents who would have sent their children to private school anyway.
“We know that where we have these voucher programs we will be subsidizing religious extremist, anti-LGBTQ hate groups,” Nordstrom said in an interview Wednesday. “Schools that tell students dinosaurs walked with man, schools that tell students slavery wasn’t that bad.”
Nordstrom questioned the timing of the new program when DeVos is also talking about federal education cuts for initiatives such as afterschool programs and teacher training. DeVos attributed the cuts to Congress wanting the federal government to “tighten the belt.”
Nordstrom called Wednesday’s visit a “clown show all around” designed to help boost Forest, who is running for governor in 2020.
DeVos has been traveling around the country to promote the scholarship program. Under its rules, states would decide whether to participate and how to use the money. Businesses and individuals would donate to groups identified by the state to give scholarships.
The Republican-led General Assembly could add on to the different programs now in place that provide some families with more than $20,000 a year per child to help them pay the cost of attending a private school.
The most heavily used voucher program is the Opportunity Scholarship program that was created in 2013 to provide up to $4,200 a year to help parents send their children to private schools. According to the N.C. State Education Assistance Authority, $37.7 million was issued in the 2018-19 school year to 9,640 recipients.
“The Opportunity Scholarships have been a gamechanger for us,” said Mike Fedewa, schools superintendent for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Raleigh. “We now have over 600 families accessing our schools that would not be with us without those Opportunity Scholarships.”
The program has never used all the money allocated, leaving millions unspent each year. But a spending plan approved in 2017 calls for increasing the budget by $10 million a year, from $44.8 million in 2017-18 to $144.8 million in 2027-28.
Critics of the new program are worried about the impact on public schools, but DeVos talked about how the money could be used by students at public schools. For instance, the money could be used for tutoring students at low-performing schools and to get additional special education services.
“It’s actually a way to strengthen great public schools and allow them to offer additional things, additional courses perhaps or additional focuses,” DeVos said.