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Top DeVos Deputy Dismisses Criticism of Her Choice Plan As 'Fearmongering'


Guest post by Evie Blad

A senior official in the U.S. Department of Education has dismissed concerns about a Trump administration school choice plan from a conservative think tank as "outright fearmongering." 

Jim Blew, the assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development, dismissed the criticisms from the Heritage Foundation, a right-leaning think tank that strongly supports educational choice, during a discussion at the Education Writers Association National Seminar on Tuesday. 

DeVos has teamed up with GOP lawmakers to back legislation creating $5 billion in annual tax credits to catalyze state school choice efforts. If Congress approves it, the Education Freedom Scholarships would provide dollar-for-dollar federal tax credits to individuals and businesses that contribute to scholarships for private schools and various educational services. They argue the plan would give families options in areas where traditional public schools aren't meeting their children's needs. And states would be free to opt out of the program, they say.

But Heritage, which is often aligned with the Trump administration on policy issues, has argued that future administrations could tie strings to the tax credits, giving them more say over what happens in public schools. Its concerns come as DeVos has spent her tenure reversing Obama-era directives on civil rights issues, like transgender students and school discipline, that were viewed as federal overreach by many on the right. In short, Heritage believes that however well-intentioned any proposal might be, school choice should simply not be a federal issue. 

Outside of the community of school choice advocates, opponents of the Freedom Scholarships, including teachers' unions, argue that it would drain resources from traditional public schools and take the focus off of systemic efforts to improve education across the board.

But when asked by Education Week about the smartest argument against the proposal, Blew bypassed those concerns from choice opponents, and spotlighted the misgivings of the Heritage Foundation instead. 

"We have support from American Federation for Children, Americans for Tax Reform, Excellence in Education, but Heritage Foundation is a standout in that they refuse to come on board and it's for a fascinating reason," Blew said, sitting beside American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. 

"They're worried that the next president—and they personify it usually with [Sen.] Elizabeth Warren or [Sen.] Kamala Harris—will somehow subvert everything that Ted Cruz and Betsy DeVos have set up and that somehow a future administration will use the tentacles of the federal government to undermine private schools in this country. And I have to say it's a tough argument for me to respond to because it's just outright fearmongering, and I don't know how to respond to that."

And, while DeVos and other department officials have rejected the suggestion that the scholarship plan would "use public funds," some are worried that the proposal would redirect what should be tax revenue for the federal government into private hands. 

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