The Trump administration renewed its push for school choice on Thursday with a proposal to provide $5 billion a year in federal tax credits for donations made to groups offering scholarships for private schools, apprenticeships and other educational programs.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos unveiled the plan as a "bold proposal" to give students more choices without diverting money from public schools.
"What's missing in education today is at the core of what makes America truly great: freedom," DeVos said. "Kids should be free to learn where and how it works for them."
Legislation for the tax credits is being introduced by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala.
DeVos said she expects to face opposition, and Democrats quickly let her know she'll get it. Sen. Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the Senate education committee, said the proposal is "dead on arrival."
"Secretary DeVos keeps pushing her anti-public school agenda despite a clear lack of support from parents, students, teachers, and even within her own party," Murray said in a statement. "Congress has repeatedly rejected her privatization efforts, and she should expect nothing less here."
The proposal will also face a difficult time in the House, where Democrats gained a majority in the November midterm elections. Rep. Bobby Scott, chairman of the House education committee, said Democrats "will not waste time on proposals that undermine public education."
"We're focused on reversing our chronic underfunding of public schools so that all students — regardless of their background — can learn in schools that are healthy, safe and provide a quality education," Scott said.
Education officials crafted the plan in an attempt to make school choice more politically appealing, after previous initiatives failed to take hold. Congress rejected DeVos' efforts to boost funding for charter schools and to create federal vouchers to attend private schools.
Opponents of charter schools and vouchers argue that they steer money away from public schools. But DeVos contends the proposal would spark new funding that could be used for a range of education options including public or private schools.
"The only folks who are threatened are those who have a vested interested in suppressing education freedom," DeVos said. "The program won't take a single cent from local public school teachers or public school students."
But The National Association of Secondary School Principals called the plan "insulting" and said it "reflects this administration's persistent disdain for public education." The group contends that it would make it harder for public schools to attract and retain good teachers.
The plan, called the Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunity Act, would allow states to set their own rules around the credits, including which students are eligible for scholarships and where they could be used. Possible programs include apprenticeships, private schools, home schooling, special education, tutoring or public virtual schools.
The proposal would offer a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for individuals and businesses that donate to scholarship groups approved by the state, meaning that every dollar given takes a dollar off the donor's tax bill.
Credits would be capped at 10 percent of an individual's gross income and 5 percent of a business' taxable income. Education officials said it's unlikely the $5 billion annual cap would be hit.
States could decide not to participate, but DeVos said she believes that would lead to a backlash from students and their families. "Demand will rise, and pressure will mount on those that have not yet embraced the opportunity," she said.
Eighteen states already offer their own scholarship tax credits, including Alabama, Arizona, New Hampshire and Virginia. Most programs are aimed at helping students from low-income families or those with disabilities. A federal version was discussed as part of last year's tax overhaul but wasn't included in the law.
Lawmakers described the new plan as a response to President Donald Trump's call for school choice in his State of the Union address. Trump's speech largely avoided education but included a single line saying that "the time has come to pass school choice for America's children."
Speaking alongside DeVos, Cruz said Thursday that he believes in public schools, but he argued that providing options will spur improvement at all schools.
"Competition improves," he said. "And in this case, injecting new money to give that freedom, to give that competition, to give that power of choice, will enhance the quality of education to kids all across the country."
The proposal drew applause from some groups that support school choice, including the Center for Education Reform. Jeanne Allen, the group's CEO, called it "a welcome sign in the battle for more opportunities for students."
Some conservative groups found fault with DeVos' proposal. The Heritage Foundation applauded it for pursuing school choice but said federal tax credits would open the door for undue federal regulation.
"It would grow, rather than reduce, federal intervention in education," the group said. "It would be better for the Education Department to keep highlighting the great advances that states have made in school choice."