JEFFERSON CITY – U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos used a Jan. 24 trip to the Missouri Capitol to champion local control of schools as well as school choice for elementary, middle and high school students. Such control would allow a school to better reflect its community, and choice could make it easier for parents to pay for private school or homeschooling, using tax credits should they decide it was the right move for their families.
In her speech, which was delivered to members of the Federalist Society, DeVos said the federal government is too involved in public education.
“Government has never done anything better or cheaper, more effective or more efficient, and nowhere is that more true than in education,” she said. “Education is one of the most personal issues there is. But those closest to students and students themselves are too often the least empowered to pursue it. That’s not right.”
DeVos also championed a program called the Education Freedom Scholarship, which gives parents the option of sending their children to a private school by providing dollar-for-dollar tax credits for those who donate to state nonprofits that grant scholarships.
“It connects dollars to students, not to the system,” she said. “Education that works for each student shouldn’t be determined by the government.”
Critics argue the scholarship-via-tax-credit program is tantamount to government funding religion, since many private schools are religious in nature. The topic is one of hot debate, appearing before the United States Supreme Court in late January in the case of Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue.
A program created by the Montana legislature that provided a tax credit of up to $150 for a donation to a Student Scholarship Organization (SSO), then contributions to SSOs finance scholarships given to families for student tuition at private schools of their choosing. The legislature’s program included Christian and other religious schools.
However, the Montana Department of Revenue ruled religious schools could not be included and Montana Supreme Court invalidated the entire program in a 2018 opinion as a result. In overturning a lower court decision, the state high court said the plan violates the Montana constitution’s “stringent prohibition on aid to sectarian schools.”
Three Montana families challenged the decision of the state court and want the Supreme Court to apply recent decisions supporting the right of religious bodies to participate in government programs. In 2017, the high court ruled in a 7-2 opinion the state of Missouri violated the right of Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia to exercise its faith freely by barring it from participating in a government-run, playground-resurfacing program. A ruling on the case is expected this summer.