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Three things Betsy DeVos said in Chicago — and one big topic she didn’t address

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, left, speaks with Kate Hardiman, a teacher at Holy Trinity High School in Chicago, on May 2, 2019, at the American Federation for Children's national policy summit in downtown Chicago.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, left, speaks with Kate Hardiman, a teacher at Holy Trinity High School in Chicago, on May 2, 2019, at the American Federation for Children's national policy summit in downtown Chicago.
Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat

The current conversation about school choice is too narrowly focused on one word: vouchers, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos told a friendly audience of school choice supporters Thursday in Chicago.

In a wide-ranging conversation with Kate Hardiman, a Catholic school teacher in Chicago, DeVos spoke about broadening the definition of school choice beyond vouchers and using grassroots parents groups to get the message across. She also talked about boosting career technical education, her plan for “teacher vouchers,” and how she regularly channels her father’s advice in the face of strong and persistent opposition.

The conversation took place during the American Federation for Children conference at the Loews Chicago hotel. The group has lobbied heavily for school choice bills and just won a victory in Tennessee.

But given the Chicago setting, noticeably absent from the exchange was any mention that Illinois, which has a new Democratic governor, may phase out one of the country’s most generous school-choice programs of its kind: a tax credit plan that funds scholarships for public-school students to attend private or religious schools.

The only nod to pushback came in the form of DeVos’ broad comments about employing “one-on-one diplomacy” to nudge forward a federal tax credit intended to boost such efforts. The proposal, which DeVos has dubbed the Education Freedom Plan and is sponsored by two Republicans, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rep. Bradley Byrne of Alabama, has struggled to gain traction in Congress.

Here’s what else DeVos said:

  • On her plan to create so-called “teacher vouchers”: “One of the proposals we have advanced as part of this year’s budget is a teacher voucher to choose their own (professional development). Many teachers are frustrated, because they are basically forced into boxes in too many cases.” The proposal also includes money to pair up experienced teachers with newer recruits and would fund residency programs.
  • One of the next frontiers for school choice is apprenticeships and career-technical programs: Describing a recent visit to an Ohio high school where a “signing day” for student apprentices and their future employers took on the spirited vibe of an athletes’ draft, DeVos said such programs could be a boon, especially in sparsely populated rural states. “These are really significant areas to think about adding educational choices to a menu.”
  • On the strong opposition she encounters: “I ran into a group today — that’s par for the course,” she said, referencing a small cadre of protesters whom she’d passed on the way in, a group that included some parents who’d helped stage a hunger strike to save Chicago’s Dyett High School in 2015. “My dad was very forward looking, and he’d always encourage me and my siblings to keep turning the page, keep moving on. If something unpleasant happened, if we were thwarted in some way, it was always, ‘Turn the page.’ And ‘turn the page’ comes back to me quite regularly.”

Reached Thursday, a spokeswoman for Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said the governor will cap Illinois’ tax credit program for private-school scholarships at $50 million this year, limiting it to current families. The plan was one of the most ambitious in the country when it passed in 2017. The state’s former governor, Republican Bruce Rauner, tacked it on as a last-minute provision to a state funding bill.

When campaigning against Rauner last fall, Pritzker pledged to wind down the scholarships.

“Investing in public education is one of Gov. Pritzker’s top priorities,” said his spokeswoman, Jordan Abudayyeh, in a statement e-mailed to Chalkbeat. “The governor’s budget proposed phasing out the scholarship tax credit program over the next three years so that the state can direct its limited revenues to funding its commitments to public schools first.”

More than 5,000 Illinois children receive scholarships to attend private schools through the program.

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