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Trump Is Speaking to Heritage; Four Things to Know About Its K-12 Record

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Set your DVR: President Donald Trump will be speaking at the Heritage Foundation's "President's Club" meeting Tuesday night. There's no way to know whether—or how much—education will play in the speech. Supposedly, taxes are the big focus.

Presidents don't address think tanks often, though, so this speech is a signal of Heritage's influence in Trump's Washington. And that matters for education because Heritage's lobbying arm—the Heritage Action Fund—has been an active player on K-12 policy in recent years.

Generally, the think tank has pushed for a much a smaller role for the feds in schools. Heritage has even opposed some Republican ideas for expanding school choice—like a federal tax credit scholarship program—because they're worried about growing the federal footprint on K-12.

In a nutshell, Heritage is "fundamentally about putting decision making authority in the hands of local school leaders not in some bureaucrat sitting at the department of ed," said Lindsey Burke, the director of the Center for Education Policy at the Heritage Foundation.

Here are four things you should know about Heritage's role in K-12 policy making over the past few years:

Heritage almost kept the Every Student Succeeds Act from passing.

Sure, ESSA eventually passed both houses of Congress with big, bipartisan majorities. But it wasn't always a slam dunk. Back in February of 2015, it looked like the effort to replace the universally-despised No Child Left Behind Act was going nowhere, in part because of Heritage's influence.

Heritage Action Fund came out against the initial GOP-written House version of the bill because, in its view, the bill didn't do enough to roll back the federal footprint on K-12 policy. House leaders were blindsided and had to pull the bill from the floor at the last minute to avoid an embarrassing defeat. The legislation came back up in the House that summer and passed, barely, and with GOP support only. That's partly because House leaders allowed votes on some Heritage-backed amendments that they previously blocked. These amendments were aimed at giving more control to state and district leaders. Ultimately, once the bill was merged with a bipartisan Senate version, most of these ideas—like allowing federal funding to follow kids to the private school of their choice—didn't make it into the final law.

If Heritage had gotten its way on rewriting NCLB, states would have been able to opt out of almost all federal mandates on K-12 and still get federal block grant funding. That policy would never have flown with Democrats in Congress, and even many Republicans thought it went way too far. 

Heritage is opposed to a federal tax credit scholarship program.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was said to be pushing a new federal tax credit scholarship program behind the scenes earlier this year. The proposal would have allowed organizations and individuals to get a break on their taxes in exchange for donating to so-called "scholarship granting organizations" which, in turn, dole out private school vouchers. (Similar programs are in place in more than a dozen states.)

But it doesn't look like the proposal is going to be included in the new tax overhaul Trump will be talking about Tuesday night. And that could be partly because Heritage saw a new federal tax credit scholarship program as a creating a new government bureaucracy.

Publicly, DeVos has expressed the same kinds of concerns. I asked her about the prospects for a tax credit scholarship in a recent interview. She didn't say she wouldn't pursue the idea, but she made it clear that "whatever is done or originated at the federal level—that it not be a new and expansive program to be administered at the federal level."

Heritage has some other ideas on school choice that you should keep your eye on.

Just because Heritage wasn't into the federal tax credit scholarship idea doesn't mean that the organization doesn't like school choice. How about "Heritage wasn't into the federal tax scholarship idea, but the organization does like school choice. In fact, the think tank has a couple of ideas for expanding educational options that could get traction in Congress or with the Trump administration.

For instance, Heritage would love to see so-called 529 college savings accounts expanded for K-12 education expenses. And it would like to let families use more than $1.3 billion in federal Impact Aid to cover private school tuition, school tutoring, and other services. Impact aid is supposed to help school districts make up for revenue lost because of a federal presence, such as a military base or Indian reservation.

They're not just about K-12.

Heritage works on early-childhood education and higher education, too. And their policy ideas in those areas are consistent with their K-12 philosophy. Heritage would like to get rid of PLUS loans for parents, for instance, in part because they see them as driving up student debt. And they think federal early-childhood programs—including Head Start—have failed to help low-income kids get ready for school. 

You can watch the full speech online here.


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