Education Secretary Betsy DeVos offered strong support Wednesday for the nation’s only federal school voucher program, foreshadowing what could be a bitter appropriation process in the Democrat-led House.
“Congress has got to reauthorize it. We have a president who supports choices. We have administration who are supportive. Many on Capitol Hill are supportive. We need to continue to advance choices not here in D.C., but across the country,” Mrs. DeVos said of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program at the Heritage Foundation.
“One thing standing in the way is the teacher’s unions,” she added. “They have personal and professional vested interests [against vouchers].”
Mrs. DeVos spoke at a forum celebrating the program’s 15th anniversary and made her remarks from a wheelchair. She broken her pelvis and a hip socket when she was thrown from her bicycle on Dec. 30.
“You cannot keep a good woman down,” Heritage Foundation President Kay Cole James said in introducing the secretary.
The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides vouchers for poor D.C. public school students to attend private schools, has been a political football in Congress since its inception.
The program was created as a part of a system that authorizes $20 million for vouchers and $20 million for traditional public and charter schools under the federal Scholarships for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) Act. President George W. Bush first authorized the program in 2003.
Each federal voucher annually gives $9,000 a student for elementary and middle school or $12,000 for high schoolers. The funds are awarded through lotteries eligible to students from families at or below 180 percent of the federal poverty level. Currently more than 1,600 students throughout the District attend an eligible school on a voucher.
The vouchers are funded by Congress through 2022, but they face an uncertain future in a House controlled by Democrats, who historically have opposed voucher programs.
If history is any indication, voucher opponents will look to burden the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program with regulations. During the 2017 funding process, Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee defeated Democrat-authored amendments that sought to make voucher-eligible schools add the same protections for children with disabilities and LGBT students as public schools.
Patrick Wolf, chairman of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, has told The Washington Times that such regulations would greatly limit the number of religious schools who could be eligible for the program. He said this tactic is often misleading because federal courts have not yet decided definitively whether sexual orientation or gender identity is protected under Title IX, the federal law that bans sex discrimination in education.
“Like all of the private school choice programs, the DCOSP has to operate with established civil rights law,” Mr. Wolf told The Times. “The private schools cannot discriminate based on race, gender, religion, ethnicity. LGBT is currently not [protected], so that’s a policy decision for the individual schools.”
Lily Eskelsen, president of the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, pushed back on comments made by Mrs. DeVos.
“A child’s success should not depend on a gamble, and yet President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have shown that they’re doubling down on failed policies like voucher schemes, which steal taxpayer dollars from public schools to fund private and for-profit schools — all at the expense of students,” Ms. Eskelsen said in an email.