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Prospects Seem Dim for Trump School Choice Initiative This Year


U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos came to Washington primarily to do one thing: Use the power of her office to expand school choice, her passion for decades.

Members of her own party appeared to deal a major blow to that goal Thursday, when the House panel charged with overseeing education spending approved a bill that doesn't include two of DeVos' big budget asks: using an education research program to offer school vouchers, and allowing Title I dollars to follow students to the school of their choice. More on the bill from Andrew here.

DeVos, so far, is undaunted. "The House process is one part of the process," DeVos said at a press conference Thursday afternoon that focused primarily on college sexual assault. "The Senate will also be a process, and we're committed to working with the Congress on these budget items and issues, so it's an ongoing process."

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But DeVos may not have much better luck in the Senate, in part because some Republicans are skeptical of a federal role in school vouchers, Sen. Alexander, R-Tenn., said in an interview Thursday.

Alexander would know. In fact, he tried to get language that would have allowed federal dollars to follow students to the school of their choice included in the Every Student Succeeds Act, but couldn't muster the votes, even though the Senate was under Republican control.

"A separate appropriation is always difficult to do in the federal Congress. I found that out that out when I was education secretary and almost had my head taken off, not just by the Democrats but by the Republicans" on President George H.W. Bush's "G.I. Bill for Kids"—a federal voucher proposal that never got off the ground, Alexander said. "Not all Republicans support federal dollars for vouchers. I think school choice advocates, and I'm one of them, have made a lot more progress state-by-state and community by community then in Washington. I think it's more difficult here."

To be sure, DeVos & Company may have better luck with a federal tax credit scholarship, which would allow individuals and corporations to get a break for donating to scholarship-granting organizations. But that plan has yet to be rolled out.

In fact, Congress may be running out of time to get a school choice plan over the finish line this year, said John Bailey, who worked on education in the White House during President George W. Bush's tenure.

"They're losing their window to get this done," he said. "We don't have all the details we need."

But it also seems that lawmakers aren't wild about the idea of attaching the federal tax-credit scholarship program to a broader tax-reform package. That means there may not be a legislative vehicle for the program. And White House officials have indicated that the tax credit scholarship is something they would be willing to compromise away, one source said. 

"It's unlikely to move as part of a tax reform plan, which to me says it's unlikely to move at all," said Max Eden, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank.

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