The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The education of Betsy DeVos: Why her school choice agenda has not advanced

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has been steeped in controversy since she was first nominated for the role in the Trump administration. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos came to Washington to promote the cause of her life — school choice. Republicans controlled both the House and Senate. President Trump had promised a $20 billion program.

But more than a year and a half later, the federal push is all but dead.

That’s partly because DeVos herself emerged badly damaged from a brutal confirmation process, with few people — even in her own party — interested in taking up her pet cause.

She’s also been stymied by division among Republicans over the idea of federal incentives for school choice. And Democrats are united against her.

“She’s certainly not a very effective lobbyist” for her cause, said Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “She has enthusiastically pushed it, and arguably the politics of choice are more complicated than they were two years ago, and the choice community is more split.”

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testified before Congress on May 24 on the Trump administration's proposed education budget. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

That has left DeVos with the bully pulpit. She uses it to promote alternatives to traditional public schools, typically plans that allow tax dollars to follow children when they leave for private schools. She may have won some converts, but she’s alienated many others.

Congress already has said no to her budget proposals. A proposed tax credit supporting voucherlike scholarships has died. A new spending bill again offers little for school choice enthusiasts.

And if Democrats gain power after this fall’s midterm elections, chances for action would fall even further. For all practical purposes, the fight is over, and she lost. School choice has become the latest ambitious policy plan to arrive in Washington with great hope, only to die a quiet death.

Opposition has come from lawmakers who represent rural states and see little benefit in school choice programs when so few alternatives to traditional public schools exist in their communities. As structured, critics say, a grant plan proposed by DeVos would have amounted to a windfall for states that already have these programs.

That concern arose as early as DeVos’s confirmation hearing, when Sen. Mike Enzi (R) questioned whether school choice would offer much for rural places like his home state of Wyoming.

DeVos also ran into trouble with libertarian-minded conservatives who complain that a new federal program will bring new federal regulations.

Her aides reply that she doesn’t want a large federal program, either. They point to states enacting or expanding school choice, and they claim success with a heightened public debate.

“The focus of the education debate is on school choice now in a way it never has been,” said Nathan Bailey, an Education Department spokesman. He added: “Secretary DeVos has been clear from Day One that school choice should be driven from the local level.”

And there has been movement at that level. In Illinois, a new program creates a backdoor voucher, giving corporations a tax credit if they donate money for private school scholarships. Georgia expanded a similar program. And North Carolina created publicly funded educational savings accounts to help families of children with disabilities pay private school tuition and other expenses.

Tommy Schultz, spokesman for the American Federation for Children, the group DeVos founded and led for many years, cited these and other advances. He said DeVos hasn’t been much of a factor — pro or con — during debates in these states and others.

“The national sentiment doesn’t get brought up in state-level debates over education bills,” he said.

Before being named education secretary, DeVos devoted her professional life and a slice of her family’s fortune to promoting school choice in her home state of Michigan and beyond.

Her motivation, DeVos says, is to make sure every child can escape failing schools, even if parents can’t afford private school tuition. Critics counter that vouchers and related programs help only a few students and drain money from public schools serving everyone else.

The first Trump budget proposed $1.4 billion to promote school choice, offset by deep cuts to other education programs.

It would have boosted charter school funding and created a $250 million private school voucher program. It also had $1 billion to encourage districts serving poor children to let families choose their public school.

But in Congress, aides say the fight was over before DeVos arrived. The Senate had already twice rejected school choice plans during a 2015 debate, and even DeVos backers believed the outcome this time would be no different.

Another factor was DeVos herself, according to people in both parties. The secretary had barely survived a grueling confirmation process, which ended with Vice President Pence casting a tie-breaking vote for her. Her difficulty answering questions during hearings along with her embrace of voucher plans galvanized opposition around the country.

Aides inside the administration and on Capitol Hill said her unpopularity made her toxic, and it became almost impossible for her to effectively advocate for her program. One administration official said teachers unions had so bludgeoned her that lawmakers saw “no great benefit and a great deal of pain” with being associated with her chief cause.

With the budget proposal going nowhere, advocates looked ahead to the coming tax debate as their best chance to promote school choice. The leading idea was to create a federal tax credit for donors to nonprofit groups that provide private school scholarships.

But it soon became clear that advocates were sharply divided over the idea.

Back in March 2017, before the administration’s plans were clear, the conservative Heritage Foundation hosted a discussion that showcased opposition to new federal mandates, regulations and spending. Similar opposition was voiced at a White House meeting in June 2017, when DeVos and senior Trump aide Kellyanne Conway gathered a few dozen education allies to discuss options, according to one of the participants.

That summer, the White House considered whether to include a school choice credit in its tax framework, and opponents mobilized.

“There is great risk in federalizing choice,” Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation wrote in The Washington Post that August. “He who pays the piper calls the tune, and federal control could ultimately impose the same regulations on once-independent schools that have stifled public institutions.”

Those positions were frustrating to school choice proponents such as Jeanne Allen, founder of the advocacy group Center for Education Reform, who argues that some federal oversight is worthwhile if a program delivers new options for children. “I’m confident minimal federal intrusion is possible,” she said. The tax credit plan, she said, “should have been part of the tax bill, but no one was willing to put it there.”

The idea also suffered because the overall thrust of the tax overhaul was simplifying the code. Adding a credit would do the opposite.

In September 2017, Trump unveiled his tax blueprint, and the school choice piece was left out. Congress did not add it.

Then, this year, a plan died that would have created education savings accounts for military families. The funding would have come from a program that sends money to schools serving these children.

DeVos and others were wary about taking money from that program, and the idea died in the GOP-run House.

Meanwhile, even Democrats who have been friendly to school choice in the past have backed off, in part for fear of being associated with Trump or DeVos.

“Part of the problem is, this administration has very limited credibility,” said Shavar Jeffries, national president of Democrats for Education Reform, an advocacy group that supports charter schools and other challenges to traditional public schools. He said he has been disturbed by some of DeVos’s comments, such as suggestions that private schools may not have to comply with civil rights laws.

“There’s very limited if any support on the Democratic side of the aisle for that approach,” he said.

Advocates have scored small wins in Washington. A college savings plan that gives parents a tax break — the 529 plan — was expanded to allow parents to use up to $10,000 a year toward tuition in K-12 schools, a benefit to taxpayers who can afford to invest in these plans. In addition, Congress increased funding to support charter schools.

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R), a longtime supporter of school choice who recommended DeVos for education secretary, said she had advanced the cause through these small steps and by acting as a cheerleader for state action.

“Betsy has been a passionate, lifelong advocate for parental choice, and probably the strongest proponent of choice that has led the Education Department,” he said in an email.

The lack of action in Congress has left DeVos to promote her ideas rather than any particular proposals. She casts parental choice as “education freedom” and derides the federal government’s role.

“My work in education over 30 years has revolved around time invested on the outside,” she said in a July speech. “Outside the Department of Education. Outside the system. Outside Washington. I think that’s a good thing. Don’t you?”