Bevin promotes school choice with US education secretary

April 17, 2019
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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, left, speaks with Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin before a roundtable discussion on school choice efforts in the state, Wednesday, April 17, 2019, at Bluegrass Community & Technical College in Lexington, Ky. Bevin is teaming with DeVos to promote school choice initiatives. DeVos touted a Trump administration proposal during the roundtable discussion. (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP)

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — The Trump administration’s top education official teamed up with Kentucky’s governor and others Wednesday to promote school choice initiatives that use tax credits to pay for some children to go to private schools.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos urged Republican Gov. Matt Bevin and others to “keep fighting” for proposals that she said would allow students more flexibility to find their right educational fit.

Critics of the hour-long school choice event said it lacked advocates for public primary and secondary schools in a state where politically energized public school teachers have staged statehouse rallies to challenge pension and education proposals.

The Kentucky Education Association, which represents tens of thousands of teachers and other school workers, said in a statement that without public-school stakeholders on hand, DeVos and Bevin didn’t hear counter-arguments opposing “their rush to privatize public education.”

DeVos and Bevin said scholarship tax credits increase school options for more students.

“All we want to do is break down barriers that preclude a kid from having a shot,” Bevin said.

One Kentucky school choice proposal would award tax credits to people who donate to scholarship funds for special needs children and those in foster care or low- to middle-income homes to attend private schools. The bill died during the state’s legislative session this year.

“I know you’ve had a few frustrations,” DeVos said during the discussion with Bevin and other school choice supporters. “I just want to encourage you to keep at it and keep fighting.”

Critics of the scholarship tax credit proposal in Kentucky have said it would divert money away from public education. An analysis by the Legislative Research Commission found it would cost the state $209 million in tax revenue by 2025.

Kentucky teachers have used sick days to close schools in protest of education bills. Bevin said last month that teachers who called in sick were “walking out on students, leaving them in the lurch.” The protests came amid a wave of teacher activism across the country that began last year in West Virginia and spread to other states.

Bevin, who is seeking reelection this year, said Wednesday that scholarship tax credits offer broader educational opportunities for students who otherwise wouldn’t have them.

“It’s hard for me to believe that in any way, shape or form such a thing could be controversial,” he said.

Some Democratic state lawmakers also criticized the Lexington event for its limited participation. They said in a statement that “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.”

Bevin was asked afterward about the absence of public school advocates. He responded: “The people here care about the kids. Every single person who sat around this table cares about the children — not about funding, not about territory, not about power, not about politics.”

During her Kentucky visit, DeVos also touted a federal scholarship tax credit proposal pushed by President Donald Trump’s administration.

It would provide $5 billion a year in federal tax credits for donations to groups offering scholarships for private schools, apprenticeships and other educational programs. The plan, called the Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunity Act, would allow states to set their own rules for the credits, including which students are eligible for scholarships and where they could be used.

“The possibilities are really limitless,” DeVos said. “And it would be entirely up to each state to determine what would be the right solution and the right approach for each state.”

The plan has met resistance from congressional Democrats. DeVos acknowledged Wednesday that its supporters “have a ways to go” to pick up enough support to pass it.

DeVos was the latest Trump administration official to hold an election-year event with Bevin in Kentucky. Bevin’s GOP challengers in the May 21 primary are state Rep. Robert Goforth, William Woods and Ike Lawrence.

Bevin, an outspoken Trump , has also had appearances this year with Ivanka Trump, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler and drug czar Jim Carroll. Vice President Mike Pence campaigned for Bevin in March.