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Betsy DeVos

U.S. education secretary Betsy DeVos and state legislator Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, speak to reporters at the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines on Friday. 

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.

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.

Afterward, DeVos and state legislator Brad 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.

The proposal has 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.”

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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. 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,” Ras Smith, the top Democrat on the Iowa House’s education committee, said in a statement. “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.”

The lone public school representative was Waterloo superintendent Jane Lindaman, 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
  • Senate education committee members Zaun and Amy Sinclair
  • superintendents from one public and two private school districts
  • lobbyists for three the Iowa Association of Christian Schools and the Iowa Catholic Conference
  • leaders of three business organizations
  • and a lobbyist for Americans for Prosperity.

“We are very focused on empowering parents and students to find the right fit. 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,” DeVos 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.”

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