DES MOINES — Pitching her proposal to fund scholarships for private school and home-schooled students, federal education secretary Betsy DeVos met behind closed doors Friday with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and other state leaders and lobbyists.
Among those in attendance was Waterloo Community Schools’ Superintendent Jane Lindaman, the lone public education representative invited to participate.
DeVos pitched her proposal for up to $5 billion annually in federal tax credits that would allow states to create programs to fund scholarships for private and home-schooled students, apprenticeships, tutoring, special courses and others.
DeVos met with Reynolds, state legislators, education leaders and lobbyists for faith-based and taxpayer watchdog organizations for a roundtable discussion not open to the public or media on the proposed “Education Freedom Scholarships.”
The lack of other educators from public schools concerned Lindaman.
“I was surprised by the imbalance of people at this meeting today,” she told The Courier in an interview after the event. “Out of 14 people, I was the only public school advocate. I quickly realized the responsibility and, quite honestly, the burden of speaking for the hundreds of thousands of kids who are in public education in Iowa.”
According to a list published by DeVos’ office, the roundtable discussion included:
- DeVos, Reynolds and Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg.
- State education department director Ryan Wise.
- Iowa Senate Education Committee members Brad Zaun and Amy Sinclair.
- Superintendents from one public and two private school districts.
- Lobbyists for the Iowa Association of Christian Schools and the Iowa Catholic Conference.
- Leaders of three business organizations.
- A lobbyist for Americans for Prosperity.
Afterward, DeVos and Zaun, a Republican from Urbandale, took questions from reporters.
DeVos described the proposal as “a historic opportunity to expand education freedom so that students and their parents can find the right fit for every child and their education.”
“There’s just a wide range of opportunities this would afford Iowans to pursue,” she said.
Lindaman, who has been a critic of attempts by state lawmakers to divert public education funding using vouchers, didn’t see this scholarship plan as much different.
“Voucher programs can be packaged under many names, but the basic premise is typically the same,” she said. “Programs that divert dollars away from public education always catch my attention.”
The superintendent said she suggested to DeVos and Reynolds that “the greatest amount of those dollars should be reserved for public schools ... since public schools serve 94 percent of (Iowa) students.”
She noted, though, that Reynolds’ comments during the roundtable focused on boosting career and technical education, “and clearly that’s a match for the direction and the work in Waterloo Schools. I definitely want to remain open to hearing more, but at this point I couldn’t support the legislation until we know more.”
The proposal has also been met with resistance by majority Democrats in the U.S. House. They and public education advocates say the proposal would adversely impact funding for public schools.
DeVos insists the proposal would not harm funding for public schools.
It would be funded by taxpaying individuals and businesses that choose to make a donation to the program.
“Public tax dollars should go to public schools. That’s the bottom line. That’s the investment that we choose to make in our students’ future,” said Matt Sinovic, executive director of the progressive advocacy group Progress Iowa. “So anything that would divert that would be problematic.”
The organization that represents Iowa teachers, the state Democratic Party and legislative Democrats also issued statements criticizing DeVos’ proposal and Friday’s closed-door meeting.
“I’m disappointed that supporters of public education were not included in today’s secret round table on vouchers,” Waterloo Rep. Ras Smith, the top Democrat on the Iowa House’s education committee, said in a statement. “Iowans deserve to know what plans Sec. DeVos and Gov. Reynolds are working on behind the scenes that would start to privatize Iowa public schools.
“If DeVos and Reynolds really want to improve education, they would have welcomed all those with a stake in improving education to the table, including teachers and parents from public schools,” he added.
According to Lindaman, Reynolds “did talk about gaining input from businesses and parents and educators alike” if the effort moves forward.
“We are very focused on empowering parents and students to find the right fit,” DeVos said. “We know that for many kids today the schools to which they’re assigned simply don’t work.
“They may learn differently. It may just not be the right fit for them,” she said. “So this initiative is really meant not to hurt anything but to really help all students, particularly those who aren’t empowered with resources to be able to make the choices that they need to make for their futures.”