Betsy DeVos Touts Education Freedom Scholarships During Harrisburg Visit

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ visit to Harrisburg Catholic Elementary School in September was a great opportunity to highlight school choice in Pennsylvania and beyond. But most national media outlets that “reported” on the visit did nothing but attack the Secretary—and failed to provide readers with her actual remarks. 

That’s unfortunate, because the Trump administration’s Education Freedom Scholarship proposal deserves study. It would allow private individuals and business to contribute to scholarships for needy families on a voluntary basis in exchange for a federal tax credit. 

Tax dollars can be invested in Pa. students instead of unaccountable bureaucracies in Washington, DC? Who wouldn’t want that?

A centerpiece of DeVos’ visit was a roundtable discussion that included parents, students, teachers, and state lawmakers who wanted to learn more about the Education Freedom Scholarships and how they might intersect with school choice initiatives in Pennsylvania.

Regrettably, most national media outlets—as well as some local ones—echoed HuffPost’s antagonism when covering the event. Rather than provide details on the innovative proposal and the potential ramifications for Pennsylvania families bedeviled by failing public schools, reporters expressed their hostility toward religious freedom by condemning the school’s Christian identity.

The U.S. education secretary’s role is to advance the public interest, not narrow special interests. The fact that DeVos took time to visit the state capital and meet with a broad cross-section of stakeholders shows her passion for improving educational opportunities for all.

Education Freedom Scholarships would provide $5 billion in tax credits on an annual basis available to private citizens and businesses willing to donate to state-based scholarship funds. The advantage for low- and middle-income families like the ones in attendance for the DeVos roundtable is fairly obvious. With additional scholarship funds, they would not be trapped by their zip code. Instead, they would have the latitude and freedom to choose whatever education arrangement is best suited to their children. Contrary to what the media might suggest, it would not be unreasonable for parents sending their children to Catholic schools to expect those schools to actually be Catholic. 

House Speaker Mike Turzai, a school choice champion, was one of the hosts for Devos’ visit. He was the main sponsor of HB 800, which would have nearly doubled the Education Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) to $210 million annually. Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed the bill this past summer. The EITC and a companion program, the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC), awarded 52,000 scholarships across the state last year. But because of state-imposed limits, more than 49,000 applications were turned away from the programs. 

This where the Trump administration’s Education Freedom Scholarships could come into play. Pennsylvania entrepreneurs could step in to fill the gap in student needs that Wolf’s veto leaves open. According to DeVos, Pennsylvania could receive around $156 million annually if the Education Freedom Scholarship credits were fully utilized—which could provide scholarships to all of the students who were denied last year. Considering businesses have attempted to donate some $160 million beyond current EITC and OSTC scholarship caps, it seems likely they would eagerly participate in the program.

It’s not the media’s job to simply rubber stamp public policy initiatives, and it’s fine to take a critical look at what DeVos has in mind. But citizens want substantive facts and critical commentary—not buzzwords and distractions.