Politics

Thwarted by Congress, DeVos Seeks School Choice With Grants

She must also follow a presidential directive to fund STEM programs

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Congress has blocked school choice proposals from the Trump administration, but Education Secretary Betsy DeVos may have found a way to make choice a priority by awarding grants.

While Congress sets the parameters on discretionary grant programs, the department has some wiggle room in what projects and proposals it can fund. And on Thursday, school choice was the first on a list of 11 priorities for federal grants the department published in the federal register.

The department said that its 11 initiatives would apply to about 80 competitive grants, amounting to an estimated $4 billion over the 2018 fiscal year.

But while it can’t roll out a brand-new school choice program allowing federal dollars to follow students to private schools, the department can encourage those applying for the grants to focus on specific areas, such as public school choice, said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Petrilli worked in the Education Department under President George W. Bush.

“It’s just a matter of nudging people in a particular direction,” he said, adding that the Obama administration prioritized school integration for their grants. “Basically, the way it works is the department says ‘Hey, you’ll have a better chance of winning the grant if you address these priorities.’”

However, the grant proposals still alarmed top Democrats in the House and Senate education committees. 

“This is not aligned with the will of Congress nor taxpayers,” said Rep. Robert C. Scott of Virginia. “I urge the Secretary to heed the advice of the overwhelming majority of Americans and prioritize investment in public schools and the students they serve.”

Sen. Patty Murray of Washington echoed Scott’s sentiments. 

School choice initiatives from the Trump administration have yet to gain traction in Congress. Two proposals in the White House’s fiscal 2018 budget to increase school choice were rejected by lawmakers in both the House and the Senate. But DeVos, a decades-long supporter of school choice, would be able to award grants though the department without congressional consent.

“The Secretary has made clear she will be an advocate for greater choice and innovation in K-12 education,” said John Schilling, chief operating officer with the American Federation for Children, which DeVos headed before she was confirmed as secretary. “We need more of both to create greater opportunity and improve outcomes for all students, and we’re pleased to see that federal grants will be directed to these areas.”

The grant priorities only apply to discretionary competitive grants, which the Trump budget proposed expanding as a way to encourage more school districts to allow students to choose their public school. 

While school choice might be the first item on the list and the primary focus for DeVos, President Donald Trump asked the department to focus on giving grants to programs promoting STEM, or science, technology engineering and math programs.

In September, Trump signed a presidential memorandum requiring that DeVos devote $200 million in grant funding annually to STEM programs, with an emphasis on computer science.

With the directive to fund STEM programs and fulfill the requirements of specific grant programs, it could be difficult for the department to find funding for school choice, said Vic Klatt, a principal at the education lobbying firm Penn Hill Group. Klatt previously worked with the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

“It seems to me that it’s going to be very difficult for them to meet the President’s commitment to focus $200 million on STEM and computer science,” Klatt said, “while at the same time focusing on choice and some of these other items on their list.”

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