Betsy DeVos and Cardinal Dolan are at odds over details of school funding

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos shakes hands with Alexis Stratton, a freshman at Providence Cristo Rey High School in Indianapolis, during the secretary's May 23 visit to the school. (CNS photo/John Shaughnessy, The Criterion)

Even as Catholic bishops have been some of the most consistent critics of many policies endorsed by the Trump administration—reversals in environmental protections, proposals for more stringent immigration policies and efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act—some have hoped that they might have an ally in their fight to enact policies they say are favorable to Catholic schools, namely the creation of programs to distribute government funds to Catholic schools.

In a speech given on Wednesday in New York, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos again signaled support for some of these programs, such as tax-credit scholarship initiatives, that could benefit Catholic schools. She lauded state programs but said an initiative at the federal level, an idea that has the support of New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan, is not feasible because it would create a new bureaucracy. But other supporters of the school-choice movement dispute this, saying changes in tax law are all that is needed to provide new resources for students attending non-public schools. Cardinal Dolan introduced Ms. DeVos at Wednesday’s speech, given at a fundraiser for the Alfred E. Smith Foundation.

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Ms. DeVos, who made similar remarks last year to a group of school choice advocates, described as “bigoted” the so-called Blaine Amendments, state constitutional provisions dating back to the 19th century that ban public funding for religious schools, saying they “should be assigned to the ash heap of history.”

She also praised a number of state programs designed to provide support for children enrolled in non-public schools, including programs in Pennsylvania, her native Michigan and a recently enacted tax-credit scholarship program in Illinois whose creation is credited in part to lobbying from the Catholic Church.

Ms. DeVos, who made similar remarks last year to a group of school choice advocates, described as “bigoted” the so-called Blaine Amendments.

But she said there is no single program that will fit every state.

“A top-down solution emanating from Washington would only grow government,” she said, adding that it could lead to “a new federal office to oversee your private schools and your scholarship organizations, an office staffed with more unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats tasked to make decisions families should be free to make for themselves.”

Advocates of programs to support non-public schools say that they are implemented at the state level within existing agencies and question the claim by Ms. DeVos that a federal law would lead to more bureaucracy.

In Illinois, for example, the tax-credit scholarship program, known as Invest in Kids, was implemented in 2017 and relied on existing state agencies to write the rules.

A federal tax-credit scholarship program would be “administered by the Treasury Department as a tax provision, along with the hundreds of other provisions in the federal code,” Peter Murphy, the vice president for policy at the pro-school choice Invest in Education Foundation, told America. “It’s never been clear where the b-word, bureaucracy, comes from.” But he added that Ms. DeVos is “a fantastic advocate for children.”

Cardinal Dolan thanked the secretary for her remarks and promised she was speaking to a friendly audience.

But the pair are not on the same page when it comes to “school choice” policies.

In a 2017 address to Congress, President Trump called on lawmakers “to pass an education bill that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth” that would allow parents “to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious, or home school that is right for them.”

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York responded in a Wall Street Journal column, pointing to unsuccessful efforts in New York and arguing that “a national solution is needed to bring relief to families who need it.”

Advocates of programs to support non-public schools say that they are implemented at the state level within existing agencies and question the claim by Ms. DeVos that a federal law would lead to more bureaucracy.

“I have seen firsthand why Catholic families and leaders support scholarship tax credits. They help advance educational and economic justice. They strengthen society by creating opportunity for those who might not otherwise have it,” he wrote.

But the topic of school choice was absent from Mr. Trump’s State of the Union speech in January and while the White House’s proposed 2019 budget includes provisions that could allocate federal money to charter schools and beef up school voucher programs, it does not address tax credit scholarship programs.

Ms. DeVos said on Wednesday that any "new federal office to oversee your private schools" would not only create more bureaucracy but raises the danger that a future administration "hostile to your faith" may usher in unforeseen regulations.

“So, when it comes to education, no solution—not even ones we like—should be dictated by Washington, D.C.,” she said.

Tax-credit scholarship programs currently operate in 18 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Though each state has its own rules, the programs are usually structured to allow individuals or businesses to donate to nonprofit scholarship organizations. In return, the donors can deduct part of the donation, or sometimes the full amount, from their state tax obligation. They differ from voucher programs, which distribute government dollars to parents to use at private or religious schools.

While rebuffing those who want federal action, Ms. DeVos promised she is “not going to stay on the sidelines” and said that “D.C. does have an important supporting role to play in giving students better options.”

She cited changes to “529 Plans,” special savings accounts with tax benefits that had been designed to help save for college tuition and fees. The idea was first put into place in Michigan and in 1996, it was adopted at the federal level. As a result of last year’s sweeping tax overhaul, the plans can now also be used to help pay for schooling from kindergarten through high school.

“The recent 529 expansion to include K-12 is a small step toward giving families more freedom. It’s also a rare instance where Washington stuck to its appropriate role—one I have every intention of sticking to as well,” Ms. DeVos said.

Ms. DeVos suggested that states that enact such programs will serve as models for states that do not offer such tax incentives.

“Some states will need more prayers and more action than others to bring about needed changes,” she said. “But as more states begin to offer more options to families, the pressure will mount on those who have not yet risen to the challenge.”

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Lisa Weber
3 months ago

Anything that Betsy DeVos does is suspect because of her lack of expertise about education. I do not want to see government funding of private schools simply because private schools have too much room to promote division in our country whether along lines of religion, race, or economic class.

Elizabeth Stevens
3 months ago

To Cardinal Dolan and all other Catholics: just remember the "golden rule" that says, "Whoever has the gold makes the rules." That means to keep the government money out of private education or we will be looking at some rules we don't like. Betsy DeVos cannot speak for Catholic schools; in fact, I'm trying to figure out how she can even speak for public schools with the lack of familiarity she has with them. Think: why in the world would the federal government be trying so hard to give money to religion-based schools? It's not about "choice," it's about regulation.

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