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Ed. Dept. Has No Plans for a 'Federal Voucher Program.' Let's Break That Down.

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Since President Donald Trump's proposed budget for fiscal 2018 was released last week, a lot of attention has been paid to a $250 million plan in the U.S. Department of Education's budget that would pay for, and study the impacts of, private school vouchers. But if you listen to the department's description of that plan, how you talk about the program matters a great deal.

In an email, department spokeswoman Liz Hill told us last week that, "To be clear, there is no federal voucher program. The [private school voucher] grant program would support states who apply for funding to develop school choice programs, and those States' plans must adhere to Federal law."

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Here's where the budget proposal isn't strictly a direct voucher plan: The proposal in the budget blueprint would not send money directly from Washington to use for tuition vouchers at private school. That makes it different than state voucher programs. Instead, it would be run through a competitive grant program, as my colleague Sarah Sparks described here.

Still, on another level, Hill's distinction might be confusing. Federal money under Title I, for example, flows by a set of formulas (approved by Congress) to local districts, who then spend that money on their schools, within certain federal requirements. Yet you might be hard-pressed to find an education funding expert who says Title I isn't a federal program just because the federal money doesn't go directly from Washington to students.

The grants would also be subject to federal oversight, since the Education Department would have the responsibility of monitoring the use of the federalg grant money. (The Government Accountability Office had something to say about this general issue for grants in fiscal 2015.)

During her testimony last week before a House subcommittee, when Democratic lawmakers aggressively questioned Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos about whether private schools receiving federal funds through vouchers could discriminate against certain groups of students, DeVos repeatedly stressed that states and parents ultimately have the important prerogatives when school choice programs are being set up.

Her testimony wasn't entirely clear with respect to federal issues, since she focused mostly on existing state school choice programs like the McKay Scholarships for students with special needs in Florida. And DeVos did pledge her commitment to investigating alleged civil rights violations. But her focus on state power and parental choice, combined with Hill's comments, might provide some clues about the department's view of its role with respect to these grants.

We asked Hill for any additional comments the department had on this issue and how it views funding streams like Title I. We'll update this post if we hear back. 

Image: Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks at the American Federation for Children's national summit in Indianapolis on Monday, May 22.

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