Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos visits Lexington to discuss a federal school choice program. | Photo by Olivia Krauth

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos pitched federal scholarship tax credit legislation to a table of state education officials and school choice advocates in Lexington on Wednesday.

Those invited included multiple state board of education members, including a vocal school choice advocate, Gary Houchens; representatives involved with EdChoice KY, which pushed for state scholarship tax credit legislation this session; and Jim Waters, the leader of the Bluegrass Institute, a free-market think tank.

Legislation to give tax credits to those who donate to private school scholarships for low-income, special education and foster care students failed to make it to a committee vote in this year’s session.

Several Louisville educators cited it as a top reason behind district-closing protests. All superintendents in the state opposed the measure, arguing it would pull state revenue and local per-pupil funding from districts without a drop in fixed costs.

“I know you’ve had a few frustrations,” DeVos said, indirectly referencing Kentucky’s inability to move such legislation. “I just want to encourage you to keep at it and keep fighting.”

DeVos’ administration is proposing a national version of such legislation, called Education Freedom Scholarships. Congress has yet to pass the measure.

None of Kentucky’s superintendents, all of whom opposed scholarship tax credits at the state level, were invited to the roundtable event. Neither were other any other public school representatives or teachers union leaders nor were Fayette County lawmakers or school board members.

“Public schools in KY are doing transformative & innovative things with less funding,” the Kentucky Education Association tweeted shortly after the event. “We don’t need vouchers, we need full funding. (The roundtable) isn’t a conversation about educational opportunities, it’s a shareholders meeting about future earnings on the backs of KY’s kids.”

Gov. Matt Bevin did not directly explain why public education administrators were missing from an education roundtable but suggested those missing did not care about Kentucky’s kids.

“The people here care about the kids,” Gov. Matt Bevin told reporters after the event. “Every single person that sat around this table cares about the children. Not about funding, not about territory, not about power, not about politics.

“They care about parents and they care about students and it was a broad representation of people who care about those things.”

Proponents of school choice say by providing money from the government, either directly or indirectly, students are more likely to be able to afford private schools or to cross district lines, giving them a choice of schools.

“Our proposal is intentionally very simple,” DeVos said, explaining states control much of how the plan is implemented in their state if it is implemented at all.

The federal program would provide an annual $5 billion tax break for state-based scholarship organizations. Contributions would receive a dollar-for-dollar credit, and donors would not be able to make more than their initial donation.

Each state determines which scholarship-granting organizations can utilize the federal program and which students are eligible. The federal program does not require that scholarships go to low-income students, a key part of Kentucky’s state-level proposal.

Compared to Kentucky’s proposed legislation, which focused on private schools, the federal program could benefit public school students. States would be given more control over what types of education expenses can be covered by the scholarships, DeVos said. Apprenticeships, homeschooling and tutoring could be potentially covered.

Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis said the variety of uses for scholarships could help make up for a lack of state resources.

“What excites me about the proposal is the possibilities for what it could mean for advancing our aims in public schools across the state of Kentucky,” Lewis said. Should the measure pass, he hopes “a large stakeholder group” will be involved in determining Kentucky’s plan.

Throughout the hourlong discussion, DeVos took questions about the specifics of the proposal, which is backed by President Donald Trump. In closing, she encouraged the table to ask their lawmakers to support the national school choice plan should it head to a vote.