On Tuesday, the Senate confirmed Betsy DeVos as education secretary, 51-50. In an unprecedented move, Vice President Pence had to cast the tie-breaking vote after two Republican senators went against party lines.
After her confirmation, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) president Randi Weingarten issued a press release, in which she wrote, “DeVos shows an antipathy for public schools; a full-throttled embrace of private, for-profit alternatives...That makes this a sad day for children.”
Conversely, Michael J. Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution wrote, “DeVos is an inspired choice for the job that the Senate confirmed her for today.”
A lot of the controversy surrounding DeVos is due to her adamant support of school vouchers: state-funded scholarships where the portion of public funds allocated to pay for a student to attend a public school is reallocated to pay for full or part of the tuition for a private school.
School vouchers were first proposed in 1955 by Milton Friedman, a Nobel Prize winning economist from the University of Chicago. However, the first modern school voucher program was not passed until 1989 by the Wisconsin legislature.
Since then, school vouchers have spread across the country. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), as of November 2016, 14 states and the District of Columbia (DC) have school voucher programs. Except for Maine and Vermont, in every state that has a school voucher program and in DC, eligible students must have a disability, identify as low-income, or their neighborhood school has to be designated as failing.
Minnesota does not currently have a school voucher system and, historically, school voucher legislation has not passed or been vetoed. However, on January 23rd, a bill (HF 386/SF 256) was introduced that would amend the existing Minnesota Education Credit (MN 290.0674), which has been in law since 1997, and other relevant statutes.
The new proposal would give tax credits to corporations and residents who donate to organizations that provide scholarships to students who are unable afford tuition for private school. Financially, the proposed tax credit is worth up to only $35 million a year, less than one percent of the $8 billion annual allocation for Minnesota’s public schools.
While the tax credit is not synonymous with school vouchers, many are afraid that, if passed, the legislation would lay the foundation for a future state voucher system. Amber Jones, education organizer for Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, indicated that underserved communities would be left behind if this legislation moved forward, “The voucher bill is the first step to implementing the DeVos system in Minnesota.”
Laura Bloomberg, associate dean at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs said that the credit is a step toward a voucher system and shares a common goal of moving state funds toward private education.
On the other side, a lead author of the bill, Rep. Ron Kresha, said that the credit will increase parents’ school choice to help find the institution that suits their child’s needs. Similarly, Senator Roger Chamberlain, a chief sponsor of the bill, said, “The time has come for some new opportunities and new solutions to some old education problems.”
While the political climate has thrust this issue to the forefront, additional hearings on the bill will be held before it is voted on by the Republican-majority House and Senate. Additionally, the bill would also need approval from Governor Dayton, who has previously opposed similar legislation.
The House Education Finance Committee is scheduled to have a meeting regarding the bill, in addition to two other bills, today at 1:00 PM. Education Evolving will continue to follow and report on relevant education policy topics throughout this session.
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