Teachers unions and the education establishment reacted with predictable scorn when President-elect Donald Trump last month named Betsy DeVos as his nominee for secretary of education.
But parents have one simple reason to be optimistic: DeVos has been a champion for educational choice across the country.
Her support for school choice goes beyond mere lip service. She has worked to advance viable options for students and families, including charter schools, vouchers, tuition tax credit scholarships and education savings accounts.
That support for education choice will be a welcome change of pace, particularly for poor children living in the nation’s capital.
For the past eight years, the Obama administration has tried, almost annually, to wipe out funding for the wildly successful D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, commonly called OSP.
The administration has done so despite the fact that a random evaluation conducted by the U.S. Department of Education revealed that use of an OSP scholarship increased graduation rates for participants by 21 percent.
Those findings would be notable in and of themselves — increasing graduation rates is a long-held education policy goal — but they’re particularly spectacular given that the voucher provided through the program awards, on a per-pupil basis, just a fraction of what is spent on the District of Columbia’s public schools.
Annual revenue per pupil in the public district tops $29,400. OSP, on the other hand, awards scholarships of up to $8,452 to children in kindergarten through eighth grade, while giving students in grades 9-12 up to $12,679.
Even at the upper end of the scholarship amount, the vouchers cost less than half the public district’s per-pupil revenue and are spurring graduation rates that outpace the national average and far outpace the average in the district.
Although the federal government is limited in what it can do to advance education choice, supporting the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program and encouraging its expansion is one option.
Secretary-designate DeVos should also consider education savings accounts for military-connected children and should work to create education savings accounts for children attending Bureau of Indian Education schools, which have been identified as the worst-performing schools in the country.
That said, education choice will not be the only education policy issue facing the secretary and the incoming administration.
The federal college student loan albatross also must be tackled, and policies that have enabled the accumulation of $1.3 trillion in outstanding student loan debt — up from $240 billion since just 2003 — will no doubt feature prominently in the pending reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.
Long-term defaults stand at around $125 billion. Add to that the Government Accountability Office’s recent finding that public sector loan forgiveness will cost taxpayers more than $100 billion, and there’s no doubt left that reform is desperately needed.
In order to decrease loan burdens and place pressure on colleges to rein in college costs, the PLUS loan program should be eliminated in order to make way for more flexible private funding alternatives.
The incoming administration has a major opportunity to advance education choice as appropriate, move toward policies that can lower college costs and dramatically downsize the federal Department of Education.
Pursuing a package of reforms that begins the important work of making federal education funding limited, targeted and — most importantly — student-centered and portable can help restore state and local control of education and will better serve students and taxpayers nationwide.
This piece originally appeared in My Statesman