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Republicans Gear Up for School Choice Legislation Under DeVos

D.C. scholarship program could be easy starter

Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-North Carolina, next chair of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, has praised voucher programs in both Washington, D.C., and in her home state. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-North Carolina, next chair of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, has praised voucher programs in both Washington, D.C., and in her home state. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Republican-backed legislation giving parents more control over their children’s education is expected to get a boost in the next Congress if school choice advocate Betsy DeVos is confirmed as President-elect Donald Trump’s Education secretary.

Some proposals are expected to easily pass next year, such as the re-authorization of Washington, D.C.‘s unique scholarship program allowing students to use federal funds to attend private and charter schools.

But plans to expand school choice nationwide have in the past run into strong opposition from Democrats and some Republicans who see it as a threat to public schools, and hesitation by Republicans to push a federal school policy onto local and school officials, a concept many of them decry.

Republicans spent most of the past year arguing that the Education Department was interfering in decisions that should be left to state and local officials, such as urging states to adopt Common Core academic standards. Now, to push school choice policies such as federal and state funded vouchers allowing students to attend the school of their choice, they will need to make sure they are not overstepping those same boundaries, said Lindsey Burke, a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

“The incoming secretary has been a champion of school choice and will hopefully bring that rhetorical support with her, but beyond that it’s fairly limited,” Burke said. “We need to be careful about trying to mandate state and local policy through that federal level.”

[Betsy DeVos Tapped for Education Secretary]

Rep. Virginia Foxx, the next chair of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said priorities have not been set yet for next year, but did praise voucher programs in both Washington, D.C., and in her home state of North Carolina.

In the Senate, Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander is a proponent of school choice. During debate last year on the new K-12 education law, he introduced an amendment that would have allowed states to use federal funding for school choice initiatives. The measure was defeated, with eight Republican colleagues voting against it.

Although past bills and amendments introduced by Alexander have not passed the Senate, school choice is still a priority for the Tennessee Republican, his spokeswoman Margaret Atkinson said.

In addition to the Washington, D.C., program, other school-choice legislation likely to gain traction next year involves areas where schools rely more on federal funding, such as on Native American reservations.

But the focus is likely to be on reauthorizing the “D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program,” the only federally funded school choice program in the country that allows low-income children to use federal funds to help pay for private schools in the district.

More than 1,200 students used the scholarship in the 2015-16 school year, but the program can’t provide a scholarship for every eligible child. Of the 2,349 students who applied for open scholarships, 234 were awarded by lottery, according to data from the program.

And if it’s going to be renewed this year, lawmakers would need to find a way to work with President Barack Obama, who is not a fan of the program because it diverts federal money to private education. Reauthorizing it, however, is a top priority for the Trump administration, said Matt Frendewey, a spokesman for the American Federation for Children, which was headed by DeVos when she was picked as Trump’s Education secretary.

“The first priority is having it reauthorized, and that’s in the process right now,” Frendewey said. “Any other discussions of the D.C. program I wouldn’t even get into at this point because the sole focus is reauthorization.”

[A Federal Funding Fight Over D.C. Vouchers]

Congress might also have an easier time passing school choice legislation in areas where, like D.C., the federal government plays a larger role in funding schools. Bills have been introduced to fund school choice programs on Native American reservations and on military bases.

Some of the strongest school choice advocates in Congress are aware they have to balance their national school choice proposals with state and local control. Rep. Luke Messer, R-Indiana, the chairman of the Congressional School Choice Caucus who has worked with DeVos in the past, said he sees national school choice legislation as a way to limit federal power.

“I don’t think we need to create a federal department of school choice,” Messer said in an interview. “Taking the federal dollars we do spend and allowing those dollars to be portable so that moms and dads are in charge of their kids’ education is a great way to devolve power away from Washington and put power back in the hands of local leaders.”

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