U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has been in Alaska this week, touring various alternative and charter schools throughout the state. She’s highlighting her national Education Freedom Scholarship proposal, which she says would allow for families to have more choice in how their students are educated.
Some Alaska education advocates question if and how the program could work in the state.
The Education Freedom Scholarship program is designed to encourage private investments in education. Individuals and businesses would receive a federal tax credit for donating to state nonprofits that grant scholarships for elementary or secondary education.
“So if Alaska chose to be a part of the Education Freedom Scholarship program, they would name one or more 501(c)(3) organizations,” DeVos said during a tour of King Tech High School in Anchorage. “And those organizations would grant out scholarships to students and their families to find the right fit for their education.”
The program needs approval from Congress before it can become law.
DeVos discussed her proposal with several Alaska lawmakers and educators at a roundtable on Monday. Palmer Republican Sen. Shelley Hughes was one of them. She said that out of the $5 billion set aside for the credit, Alaska scholarship organizations would see about $25 million.
Hughes hoped the money could be used for pre-K programs. She said rural educators were hopeful it could help students in their communities.
“I believe that they’re open and wanting to do something differently, because the ‘same old same old’ has not been working the last few decades,” Hughes said. “So I think that these scholarships might even help spur some innovative programs in villages.”
The Educational Freedom Scholarship program allows for investing in both public and private schools. But local education advocates worry the program is designed to benefit private schools more.
Alyse Galvin is the former head and current member of Great Alaska Schools, a nonprofit focused on school issues in the state. She lobbied, successfully, for U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, to vote against confirming DeVos as Education secretary two years ago with similar concerns.
“The program still diverts tax dollars to private schools,” Galvin said. “So there’s going to be more money into private schools from tax dollars.”
Galvin said Alaska already has a wide variety of public alternative schooling options, from career technical education to early access to college. She said communities in the state already have a voice in how education dollars are spent.
“The local control means that our school boards get to help decide things like curriculum, whether or not we’re hiring the right people, whether or not even we have the right things with regard to — not just teaching, but counselors, are we doing the right things in terms of engaging our kids with arts and sports.”
Galvin said she’s more supportive of just putting money into the districts to allow them to make those decisions rather than creating a complicated voucher system.
Anchorage Democratic Sen. Tom Begich was at the roundtable with Hughes and DeVos. He said he’s not even sure that the federal program would happen anytime soon.
“I’m a little more, I guess, cynical, about the prospects of these kinds of pieces passing, but surely open to doing everything we can to take advantage of them when they are available,” Begich said.
Begich, Hughes and Galvin all said that while they didn’t think that DeVos was knowledgeable of the complexities of schooling in Alaska, they appreciated that she took the time to visit many communities in the state.