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Betsy DeVos defends use of public dollars for religious schools 


We haven’t checked in with U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for a while. She spoke yesterday in New York City to the influential Alfred E. Smith Foundation, which raises money for Catholic causes and charities.

Her speech doubled down on her belief that American parents should be free to use tax dollars to send her children to religious schools, a point she underscored by visiting two New York City schools, neither of which was a public school. DeVos visited two Orthodox Jewish schools. 

As The New York Times noted after her visit: 

Ms. DeVos has yet to visit a district-run school in New York, and her choice of institutions to visit drew a terse statement from the city’s Department of Education. “An investment in public education is an investment in the future of our city and country,” the department’s press secretary, Toya Holness, said. “Secretary DeVos is welcome to visit N.Y.C. public schools and see the phenomenal work we’re doing in the nation’s largest school district.” 

Here is an excerpt of her speech to Catholic leaders in New York, including 

Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan.

Pope Leo the 13th wrote: “The contention that the civil government should -- at its option -- intrude into and exercise intimate control over the family and the household is a great and pernicious error.” Pope Leo was right! Government can’t know the needs of individuals better than a parent, a pastor or a friend. 

That’s why when it comes to education, the family is – and always will be -- the “first school.” Parents hold the inalienable right to decide what learning environment best meets their children’s individual needs. That’s something the Church has lived by for over 2,000 years. The primacy of parents was honored by this country’s Founders as well. 

Sadly, I can’t say that’s as “self-evident” today as it was then. 

There are many in Washington who seem to think that because of their power there, they are in a position to make decisions on behalf of parents everywhere. In that troubling scenario, the school building replaces the home, the child becomes a constituent and the state replaces the family. 

Pope Pius the 11th wrote that “any monopoly” that “forces families to make use of government schools, contrary to the dictates of their Christian conscience, or contrary even to their legitimate preferences” is fundamentally “unjust.” 

Our country has an ugly history of unjust laws that force families to violate their consciences or that disrespect their preferences. In the late 1800s, anti-Catholics tried to amend the U.S. Constitution. They failed at the federal level, but they maneuvered to enact the amendment in state constitutions throughout the country. 

These Blaine provisions prohibit taxpayer funding of “sectarian” – a euphemism at that time for “Catholic” – activities, even when they serve the public good. Activities like addiction recovery, hospice care, or -- the amendments’ primary target -- parochial education. 

These amendments are still on the books in 37 states. They were bigoted then, and they still are today. 

But there’s hope that Blaine won’t be around much longer. As many of you know, the Supreme Court ruled in last year’s Trinity Lutheran case that it was unconstitutional for a playground restoration program funded by state-taxpayers to exclude a school “simply because of what it is – a church.” 

These amendments should be assigned to the ash heap of history and this “last acceptable prejudice” should be stamped out once and for all. 

I’ve learned that, outside of this room, it’s not all that popular for someone in my position to point out hard truths. It’s not popular to admit that American education isn’t serving every student well. But I didn’t take this job to win over editorial boards or to be trending on social media. I took it to serve students. The main focus of my work is to recognize problems, and then take them head on. 

The most recent Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) report, for instance, has the United States ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. That’s middle of the pack. Average. 

America recently finished fourth at the Winter Olympics. We left PyeongChang with the fewest medals won at the Winter games in 20 years. 

In response, the U.S. Olympic Committee pledged to take a “hard look” at what happened in South Korea because they don’t want America to settle for mediocrity. That’s good – no one should. 

But if finishing fourth at the Olympics demands a “hard look,” what does finishing 23rd? 25th? What does finishing fortieth require of us? 

But we don’t need numbers to know that “the system” is failing too many students. What matters are the faces behind the numbers. 

That student who is bullied for only wanting to read, to pay attention to the teacher and learn. That student who is told she can’t study a topic for her dream job because the school building doesn’t have the teacher or the technology. That student who steps over rats at school, breathes in mold and dodges fists. These things are happening all across the country, they’re happening right now and they’re happening right here. 

Students deserve better. Parents deserve better. Our country deserves better. And we must do better! 

That’s why I’m committed to expanding education freedom for families across America. You’ve heard me described as “pro-school choice.” Well, I am, but choice in education is not limited to a student picking this building or that school – using this voucher or that scholarship. And it’s not public versus private. Parochial versus charter. Homeschool versus virtual. Choice in education is bigger than that. 

Choice is about freedom! Freedom to learn, and to learn differently. Freedom to explore. Freedom to fail, to learn from falling and to get back up and try again. It’s freedom to find the best way to learn and grow... to find the exciting and engaging combination that unlocks the God-given potential in every individual. 

In 2001, Pennsylvania became the first state in the nation to offer a corporate tax credit scholarship, thanks in no small part to the advocacy of Catholic leaders there. 

The program was initially funded at 30 million dollars, but after Pennsylvania families were able to exercise some freedom… they liked it and demanded more of it. Today, after an additional scholarship program was launched, nearly 200 million dollars empower Pennsylvania families to choose the learning environment that’s right for their children. And I hope they’re just getting started! 

These scholarships have changed the lives of many across the state, including in the Port Richmond neighborhood of Philadelphia. There, schools consistently rank among the bottom 15 percent statewide. I think of Maya who was struggling in her assigned Philly school after suffering the loss of her mother. Then her father was diagnosed with cancer and wasn’t able to work. So, she went to live with her grandmother. Maya was grief-stricken and her studies reflected that. 

Her grandma discovered Pennsylvania’s Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit program, which was enacted specifically for students like Maya who were stuck in “low-achieving” schools. The scholarship allowed her to enroll in the Little Flower High School for Girls. The school’s emphasis on faith helped Maya get through her grief and focus on her studies. She began to grow socially, academically and spiritually. Maya is now an honor roll student who is integrally involved in school events and activities. 

Every child deserves to have the same kind of freedom Maya did, but that doesn’t mean every child needs to use the same mechanism. Just as every child is unique, so is each state. 

What works in Pennsylvania may not work in Michigan, or in Illinois, which established a tax credit scholarship program on its own. Yes, Illinois! If it can happen in Illinois, it can happen anywhere. Or consider Florida, where its parents have a wide menu of options, and its many programs are customized to the needs of its students. And yet even in the state with the most expansive programs, there is still unmet demand. More parents and more students need more education freedom. 

So how do we get there? A starting point is 529 plans, which happened to originate in Michigan. Even though the federal government later provided a complementary tax incentive, it respects each state’s right to offer, operate and design plans tailored to their own unique needs. The recent 529 expansion to include K-12 is a small step toward giving families more freedom. It’s also a rare instance where Washington stuck to its appropriate role – one I have every intention of sticking to as well. 

The lesson here is… it works because it’s a local decision. That’s why families in states should be free to pursue different avenues that lead each child to his or her fullest future. 

Their futures depend on that freedom. And they depend on what we do now. Politics can, and will, change. But right now, we have a president and a Congress led by folks who support giving parents more freedom. 

This is our moment. There are those who are vulnerable, those who are poor, those who are forgotten right around us. And they can’t wait… Our children can’t wait. 

Pius the 11th wrote: “Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative…and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice…to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do.” I know you call this “subsidiarity;” I think of it as “common sense.” 

Let me be clear: I firmly believe every state should provide choices and embrace equal opportunity in education. But those are decisions they must make. 

I’m not naïve. I know very well there are powerful interests that want to deprive families their God-given freedom. I know that those sycophants of “the system” have kept legislators here from enacting a common-sense program that would open options to thousands of kids in need. 

Be assured, I’m not going to stay on the sidelines. D.C. does have an important supporting role to play in giving students better options. Washington can – and should – come alongside states. We must continually remind them that parents only want better for their children. 

Some states will need more prayers and more action than others to bring about needed changes. But as more states begin to offer more options to families, the pressure will mount on those who have not yet risen to the challenge. 

I recognize the cross to bear for families in states like this one is heavy. I can’t help but think of the Gospel story in which Jesus revealed Himself to be the Bread of Life. Saint John reports some disciples found it too hard to accept. They left Jesus at the table and returned to their former lives. 

Will we walk away, like those disciples did, because what we must do is too hard? No. We cannot leave the table and we cannot leave another generation of students unprepared. 

I believe we are called to stay as Saint Peter did. To ask, as he did, “to whom shall we go?” I want you to know that I stand with you to answer that call… one I truly believe will change the course of our country. 

Thank you, God bless you and God bless our future—America’s students.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.