On Monday night, education secretary Betsy DeVos previewed President Donald Trump’s school-choice agenda in front of a crowd of several hundred gathered in Indianapolis for the American Federation for Children’s (AFC) annual policy summit.
This week’s conference marked the AFC’s 8th annual gathering, intended to recap recent gains for the school-choice movement while surveying its upcoming challenges. DeVos’s remarks began the event on a hopeful note, and those gathered seemed excited about the possibility of federal backing for new, pro–education freedom policies.
Though DeVos didn’t offer any concrete information about the details of Trump’s proposed education policies, she suggested that his administration — chiefly through the Education Department, under her own leadership — will throw its weight behind state-led initiatives that will allow for greater variety in school options and give parents the freedom to choose the best education for their children.
This has long been the refrain of the school-choice movement: give states freedom to develop education systems that work for their residents. While DeVos acknowledged that not every state will choose to implement programs that give parents the most choices, she noted that the federal government will encourage such programs, and she emphasized the value of federalism, regardless of what states choose to do in the realm of education policy.
DeVos neglected to mention one specific policy proposal often mentioned by school-choice groups like the AFC: a federal tax-credit scholarship program. Several states already have such a program in place, where businesses or individuals contribute to education non-profits to fund scholarships for children in need. Those scholarships enable low- or middle-income children to attend private or charter schools, and the businesses or individuals who make the donation receive a tax credit in return.
A federal program would provide tax-credit scholarships as an option to families who live in states without such a program already in place, or supplement and expand the programs in states like Florida that already have a flourishing one in place.
While the crowd at the AFC summit greeted DeVos with enthusiastic applause — especially when she commented on the importance of not replacing one big-government program with another — not everyone in Indianapolis was thrilled about her arrival.
Outside the venue on Monday night, a crowd of protestors gathered with signs denouncing her education policies. Many of them seemed to have come from the nearby Indiana State Teachers’ Association building to oppose DeVos on the grounds of her pro–school choice policies, which the protestors called discriminatory and harmful to public schools and low-income students.
If the protestors had been confronted with the information presented during the conference, though, it would’ve been more difficult for them to argue that school-choice is harmful to low-income Americans. Several sociologists presented studies — the official data from which has yet to be released to the public — with tentative conclusions illustrating the benefits of education freedom, particularly in diversifying schools and encouraging children’s interest and success in their schoolwork.
Over the course of the two-day event, several young people addressed the crowd, explaining how school-choice enabled them to achieve more success than they otherwise would have. For most of those students, vouchers, education savings accounts, or tax-credit scholarships were the only means by which they could afford to attend private schools that engaged their interest and gave them the necessary resources to apply and be accepted to college.
These are the voices that are so often overlooked by school-choice opponents. While it is important continue examining the long-term benefits and drawbacks of school-choice programs — through detailed research and student or parent interviews, in particular — the knee-jerk desire on the left to reject education freedom often betrays blind loyalty to teachers’ unions rather than to considering what programs are truly best for American children and families.