The battle for Senate confirmation of Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education has been historic but it was only a preview to the blistering fight over school choice in the months to come.
DeVos and her allies at the American Federation for Children have done an amazing job over the years at planting the seeds for school choice around the nation. Private school choice laws have been adopted in 26 states, up from just nine states a decade ago. Each were adopted over the objections of teachers unions.
The teachers unions were hoping that a defeat of DeVos would get President Trump to drop his promise of a $20 billion school-choice initiative.
Instead, the DeVos confirmation fight clarified for the Trump administration the path to victory on school choice, one of Trump’s key campaign promises.
For starters, if anyone in the White House once thought this effort could be bipartisan in the current political environment, they can no longer believe it. Every Democrat in the U.S. Senate voted no on the DeVos nomination. The teachers unions would generate a similarly partisan floor vote on any school-choice measure.
This hyper-partisan outcome means that, as a practical matter, school choice will need to be done as part of a bill subject to the reconciliation process that requires only 51 votes in the U.S. Senate.
The most obvious path is the upcoming tax-reform bill – also a major stated priority for the new President.
The narrowness of DeVos’s Senate confirmation – settled by an historic tie-breaking vote by Vice President Pence – suggests that including a scholarship tax credit in the fast-track tax-reform bill may be an easier and quicker path to a Trump victory on 50-state school choice than a spending-side approach subject to the normal tortured budgetary process.
Importantly, if the Trump administration is going to go through all of the trouble of getting school choice through, it needs to make sure that the plan is bold enough to be worth the political capital expended.
The teachers unions will oppose any school choice plan, so watering down a school-choice initiative is a failed strategy that will shrink the ranks of supporters and leave the array of opponents undiminished.
This is why a 50-state school-choice tax credit is more appealing than a limited school-choice demonstration or a block grant that only ends up reinforcing school choice in red states that already have it.
A 50-state tax credit also will reach families in blue states that Trump already won in 2016, and help him expand his voter coalition for 2020 if he prevails on the issue.The secular Left, which opposes the Trump administration on many fronts, is intensely opposed to school choice as well.
Some of the questions asked of DeVos at her confirmation hearing made vividly clear the contempt for people of faith in some quarters. This was reflected in questions posed to DeVos regarding conversion therapy (she opposes), LGBT rights (she supports equality of all people), and her family’s contributions to religious groups (so?).
It was also evident in the contention of some Senators that DeVos was unqualified to be Secretary of Education because she attended a private Christian school instead of a public school.
This outrageous litmus test apparently only applies to religious conservatives. Could one imagine any of DeVos’s critics arguing that Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, or NYC teacher union boss Michael Mulgrew are unqualified because they were educated at Catholic schools?
This clearly is no longer the party of JFK.
As the school choice fight warms up, the Democratic Party faces far more risks than they did in opposing DeVos. Opposition to school choice will alienate low-income, working class and middle-income families looking for better educational options.
Also, they should understand that the teachers unions do not speak for all labor unions on this issue. For example, a K-12 scholarship tax credit bill in New York (called the Educational Affordability Act) is supported by 30 labor unions, including those representing police, firefighters, sanitation workers, court officers, construction trades, and others. Many union leaders and rank-and-file members, especially in urban areas, attended Catholic schools themselves and want that safe quality option available for their children as well.
With DeVos confirmed, President Trump now has an opportunity to bring school choice to all 50 states, helping millions of children escape bad schools. It’s time for the President to be bold and be ready to engage directly on behalf of our nation’s children.