Bevin at her side, DeVos touts her school choice proposal in Lexington

Betsy DeVos hosts roundtable discussion on school choice in Kentucky

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos joined Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin at a roundtable discussion at Bluegrass Community & Technical College.
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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos joined Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin at a roundtable discussion at Bluegrass Community & Technical College.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and fellow Republican Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin appeared Wednesday at a roundtable meeting in Lexington to promote her school choice proposal.

DeVos said the Education Freedom Scholarships program, with pending legislation in Congress, was a great opportunity for students in Kentucky and across the nation because “it meets the needs of kids who don’t fit in where they’ve been assigned” in public schools.

Education Freedom Scholarships would create a federal tax credit that would allow families to control the use of scholarships for their child’s elementary and secondary education, which could include career and technical apprenticeships and dual enrollment in high school and college programs.

DeVos said she came to Kentucky because the state can help her advance the proposal at the federal level.

“I know you are having very important discussions and debates on policy here in the state now. You have many students who need to have this kind of opportunity,” she said.

Her proposal would inject up to $5 billion yearly into locally controlled scholarship programs, federal officials have said. Individual and business taxpayers nationwide would contribute to scholarship granting organizations. The contributors would receive a nonrefundable dollar-for-dollar federal tax credit, but no contributor would be allowed a total tax benefit greater than the amount of the contribution.

“I am encouraged to see leaders like Gov. Bevin and Commissioner (Wayne) Lewis working to expand education opportunities in their state,” DeVos said in a statement. “They are dedicated to rethinking education and improving outcomes for all students.”

“During our roundtable, we received great feedback on our Education Freedom Scholarships proposal,” DeVos said. “If passed, Kentucky could receive up to $72 million for scholarships for students. These funds could be used for a myriad of opportunities, including access to apprenticeship programs, summer and afterschool education programs, or transportation to and out of district public schools. ”

Lewis and Kentucky Secretary of Education and Workforce Development Derrick Ramsey were among those talking about DeVos’ school-choice proposal at the event at Bluegrass Community and Technical College’s Newtown Campus.

“I believe in opportunity. I believe in choice,” Bevin said as the meeting opened. “How tragic that in Kentucky ...we have disputes based on funding, based on territorialism, based on politics, none of which take into consideration the whole purpose for using taxpayer money for education... None of these disputes have anything to do with what’s best for the child.”

Later, he told reporters that the issue should not be political. “There is nothing political about educating children,” he said. “It shouldn’t be a financial issue because it is depending on the generosity of individuals. It is the federal government coming along and trying to prime that pump and encourage the right decisions being made.”

Bevin said he had known DeVos for a few years and was struck by her passion and desire “to see opportunity come for every kid.”

DeVos’ appearance comes at a time when opposition forces in Kentucky have been successful in thwarting recent school choice efforts.

Charter schools have been approved in the state since 2017 but none have opened. Groups that want to open a charter school say they have been stalled because the General Assembly has not approved a funding mechanism for charters.

With strong opposition from public school teachers, a bill failed in the 2019 General Assembly that would have allowed businesses and individuals to receive a tax credit for their donations to a scholarship-granting organization. The organizations would have provided scholarships to low- and middle-income students to attend a private school in Kentucky.

“I know you’ve had a few frustrations,” DeVos told the school choice advocates. “I just wanted to encourage you to keep at it and keep fighting.”

The Education Freedom Scholarship website said that DeVos’ proposal would not take money away from public schools.

Lewis said if passed by Congress, Education Freedom Scholarships could be used to advance the Kentucky Department of Education’s priorities, namely increasing participation in high-quality, early-learning experiences and increasing student access to dual credit courses and career and technical education programs.

DeVos said that states such as Florida have used scholarship tax credits to create programs for children with disabilities, and Kentucky could do the same. She said her federal proposal was simple and would give Kentucky flexibility.

Education Freedom Scholarships legislation has been introduced in both the U.S. House and Senate.

“We have a ways to go to convince enough of our Congressmen and women to support this at the federal level,” DeVos said. But DeVos said momentum is building and President Trump supported the proposal.

The Kentucky Education Association criticized the event in a statement Wednesday afternoon: “Students, parents and educators in Kentucky who have seen school budgets and programs gutted under the leadership of Matt Bevin could face no starker a reality than handing the future of public education over to he and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Today’s gathering of education “reformers” was nothing more than a collection of big donors who want to gut public school budgets in favor of for-profit voucher and charter school funding.”

The KEA added: “Today’s meeting was nothing more than a photo-op for a failed governor and a failed education secretary who refuse to listen to those who may disagree with their proposals. “

And some state Democratic lawmakers from Lexington issued a statement that said, “It is ironic that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is in Lexington today with Governor Matt Bevin for a roundtable discussion and none of the Fayette County Legislative Delegation appears to have been invited. It isn’t surprising, however, considering our governor consistently excludes key officials, stakeholders and constituent groups in talks about important areas of education like funding, teacher training and pension reform. In addition, any meeting with Secretary DeVos must include discussions about why she so strongly supports educational choice and how that threatens public education across the nation.”

Kentucky Board of Education Chairman Hal Heiner, board member Gary Houchens, and other Kentucky school choice advocates were among the more than 20 people on the roundtable. There was no representative from a public school district, but Bevin said, “Every single person who sat around this table cares about the children, not about funding, not about territory, not about power, not about politics. They care about parents. They care about students. It was a broad representation of people who care about those things.”

Heather Huddleston, executive director of School Choice Scholarships, a Louisville non-profit that grants scholarships to offset the costs of private and parochial schools for families with financial need, introduced Kesia Hatcher, a mother of four children that her group helped in the past.

Hatcher said the scholarships her children received to a private school for children with learning differences were life-changing. Two have since graduated from the University of Kentucky, one is at Louisville’s Sullivan University and another attends Centre College in Danville, she said.

The roundtable in Kentucky is one of several events DeVos plans to host around the country to discuss the benefits of the Education Freedom Scholarships proposal.

DeVos and Bevin on Wednesday were also scheduled to stop in Benton in Western Kentucky. They planned to announce a grant for the Marshall County School District to help in its recovery from the January 2018 fatal shooting of two students at Marshall County High School.