During Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s appearance before a House subcommittee last week, Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA) may have thought her question to DeVos would demonstrate her commitment to LGBT students in schools, but what it really did was highlight why school choice should never be a federal program in the states.
Following the release of the Trump administration’s education budget, DeVos reiterated her support for school choice to a House Appropriations subcommittee. Though the secretary emphasized the necessity to reduce the federal education budget by $9 billion – or 13 percent – she also allowed for the use of federal taxpayer funds for school choice programs.
“[T]his budget refocuses the Department on supporting States and school districts in their efforts to provide high-quality education to all our students,” the secretary said.”
In Clark’s question to DeVos, the congresswoman introduced the situation of the Lighthouse Christian Academy, a private school in Indiana that already accepts vouchers. Clark stated the school is “approved to discriminate against LGBT students” because its profile demonstrates that its biblical lifestyle prohibits:
Heterosexual activity outside of one man-one-woman marriage. For example, premarital sex, cohabitation, or adultery (John 8:1-11; I Corinthians 6:9-20; Hebrews 13:4);
Homosexual or bisexual activity or any form of sexual immorality (Romans 1:21-27; I Corinthians 6:9-20);
Practicing alternate gender identity or any other identity or behavior that violates God’s ordained distinctions between the two sexes, male and female (Genesis 1:26-27; Deuteronomy 22:5)
Clark asked what the federal government’s stance would be if Indiana received federal school choice funds and the state wished to use that funding to provide vouchers for Lighthouse Academy.
“If Indiana applies for this federal funding, will you stand up that this school be opened to all students?” Clark asked. “Would you, in this case, say, ‘We’re going to overrule, and you cannot discriminate whether it be on sexual orientation, race, special needs, in our voucher programs?’”
“For states who have programs that allow for parents to make choices, they set up the rules around that,” DeVos responded.
When pressed further by Clark on how she would stand up to “discrimination” against certain students, the secretary replied, “The Office of Civil Rights and our Title IX protections are broadly applicable across the board. But, when it comes to parents making choices on behalf of students – “
“This isn’t about parents making choices,” interrupted Clark. “This is about use of federal dollars.”
In other words, parents’ choices are unimportant where federal taxpayer dollars are used.
Senior fellows Jane Robbins and Emmett McGroarty at American Principles Project (APP) note at the National Pulse the crux of the matter in the exchange between Clark and DeVos:
Although DeVos repeatedly defended states’ flexibility to make determinations about program participation, the salient point wasn’t her answer: It was the question. The mindset of Rep. Clark is exactly what defenders of private education must worry about with respect to school choice. When government money is used in any capacity in private schools — especially in a direct way such as a voucher or similar school-choice mechanism — it’s almost inevitable that government regulations will follow the money.
At a recent panel hosted by the Heritage Foundation, EdChoice president Robert Enlow recalled what the renowned founder of his think tank – economist Milton Friedman – told him:
Milton Friedman said it to me directly a million times: “The only thing that worries me about school choice is government intervention.” The only thing that worries me about a federal tax credit program is government intervention, because we have to be very, very cognizant about the rules and regulations that will be brought out to bear on non-profits around the country.
Enlow added that while a big influx of federal cash could help low-income kids get out of failing schools – the goal repeatedly emphasized by DeVos – the potential federal regulations attached to the funding could extend to many issues, including the hiring and firing policies of non-profits.
“When the government begins to regulate the participating private schools, the schools will lose their independence and inevitably become more and more like the public schools that parents are trying to flee,” write Robbins and McGroarty, adding:
Clark’s question illustrates one area of concern. Inevitably, a Christian school’s desire to adhere to biblical teachings about sex and marriage will be deemed “discriminatory” by the new government masters, and the school will be required to change its doctrine if it wants to keep the money flowing.
The tense exchange between Clark and DeVos may have underscored the thinking behind the secretary’s apparent decision last week not to announce a federal school choice program at her address to the organization she founded – the American Federation for Children.
The secretary said instead that, while she insists states who choose not to participate in school choice programs would be making a “terrible mistake,” ultimately she acknowledged that final decision rests with the states.
“No two states are the same and no two states’ approaches will be the same – and that’s a good thing,” DeVos asserted. “States are the best laboratories of our democracy.”
Joy Pullmann, writing at The Federalist, says DeVos’s decision at the last minute to refrain from announcing a federal school choice program showed some “wisdom”:
Democrats are now openly admitting that they will consider any such program to promote bigotry if it enables students to access schools that uphold the orthodox teachings of all three major Western religions regarding sexual ethics. Notice how this also reduces education to political correctness programming; if boys can’t claim to be girls in a given school, it somehow automatically invalidates their science and math and history curricula.
Pullmann aptly observes that since 79 percent of private schools in the country are religious, “any ‘choice’ program that complies with Clark’s litmus test will both preclude the vast majority of potential options and pressure those options to become more like the public schools parents would have to want to leave to use the program at all.”
She points to the situation of Indiana’s state school voucher program and the “strings” attached to vouchers that have forced many “choice” schools into Common Core and its aligned testing program.
“In the hands of bureaucrats, ‘choice’ is a giant homogenizer,” Pullmann notes.
In a Trump administration, school choice could be largely a state-run system, but with progressives in charge, a whole new level of control over children, in the name of social justice, may be realized through the federal dollars pipeline.
“Creating a program that can reach from the federal level into virtually every public and private school in the nation is only building a weapon aimed directly at American schools’ curricular and philosophical diversity,” Pullmann says. “That’s no choice.”