DeVos backs federal tax credit pitch for 'educational freedom'

A proposed federal tax credit would benefit groups helping students attend private schools. Anticipating pushback, the education secretary says the bid wouldn't steer "a single cent" away from local public schools.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos talks with Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards at the White House Business Session with Our Nation's Governors at the White House in Washington on Feb. 25, 2019. Ms. DeVos continues to push for the expansion of school choice.

The Trump administration on Thursday proposed federal tax credits of up to $5 billion a year for donations to groups offering scholarships that would help students attend private schools, apprenticeships, and other educational programs.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is pushing the plan in a renewed bid to expand school choice after earlier initiatives failed. Her support for tuition vouchers and charter schools has been central to her education policy but has yet to take hold in Congress.

In the tax credits, however, education officials see a more politically appealing path to school choice.

Anticipating the criticism, Ms. DeVos argued that the proposal isn't an attack on public education. She said it wouldn't steer "a single cent" away from local public schools. Instead, it would open new money for scholarships and let states decide many of the details.

"The key element of the proposal is freedom for all involved," DeVos wrote in a Thursday opinion piece in USA Today. "Eligible students, families, teachers and schools, as determined by their states, all can participate at will and any can elect not to participate if that's the better choice for them."

Her plan, called the Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunity Act, would allot each state a certain limit in federal tax credits for scholarships. States could decide which scholarship groups are covered, along with the size of scholarships and which students are eligible.

Eighteen states have already adopted similar programs on their own, often aimed at students from low-income families. A federal tax credit was discussed as part of last year's tax overhaul but never made it into the bill.

The new plan is being proposed in Congress through bills introduced by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rep. Bradley Byrne of Alabama, both Republicans. It will face a difficult time in the House after Democrats gained a majority in the November mid-term elections.

DeVos' plan would give individuals and businesses a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for donations to scholarship groups that receive a seal of approval from their states. For every dollar given, it would take a dollar off the donor's tax bill.

Individuals would be capped at giving up to 10 percent of their gross income, while businesses would be capped at 5 percent of their taxable income.

Supporters of similar state programs have said it gives students better choices, especially those who would otherwise be funneled to low-performing local schools. But critics have called it a "backdoor voucher program" that still aims to privatize public education.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. 

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