Vice President Mike Pence and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos today extolled the virtues of school choice programs during a rally in the Wisconsin Capitol, saying the Trump Administration wants to give parents the power to decide what education is best for their children.
Saying Wisconsin is “where it all began,” Pence touted a $5 billion voucher proposal the Trump Administration is pushing to expand opportunities for alternatives to attending public schools.
“I’m here to tell you President Donald Trump stands for school choice, for every American and every American family,” Pence told the rally that was sponsored by Hispanics for School Choice.
Pence’s stop — believed to be the first time a sitting vice president has addressed a public rally in the current state Capitol, which was completed in 1917 — comes as Wisconsin is viewed as likely one of the key states in determining the presidency this fall.
Pence was last in the state for a campaign rally with Trump Jan. 14 in Milwaukee.
This time, he came with DeVos to praise voucher programs, particularly in Wisconsin. The nation’s first school choice program was created 30 years ago in Milwaukee under then-Gov. Tommy Thompson, who attended today’s rally and was regularly praised by speakers for his efforts to pioneer the program.
What began as a program in the city of Milwaukee expanded to Racine during the 2011-12 school year and then statewide in 2013-14 under GOP control of the Capitol. The limits on the growth of the statewide program remain in place until 2026-27, when there will no longer be any caps on student enrollment.
DeVos hailed Trump’s approach as an “education freedom agenda” giving students the opportunity to learn, grow and advance as they see fit rather than a “one-size-fits-all experience.”
Neither DeVos nor Pence elaborated on the details of the $5 billion proposal. The national tax credit scholarship program would allow parents to send their children to the public or private K-12 school of their choice.
It would allow donors to contribute to a scholarship-granting organization approved by a state in return for a tax deduction. Scholarships would then be distributed through a formula.
DeVos and Pence touted the 100 cosponsors in the U.S. House of Representatives — including all five of Wisconsin’s Republican members — though that is well short of the support needed to pass the chamber.
“Politics can and will change,” DeVos said. “But now, right now we have a president and vice president who are champions for students and parents and education freedom.”
Prior to becoming Education secretary, DeVos was chair of the American Federation for Children, which has been a major player in Wisconsin politics and the push for expanding the voucher program. She was greeted with a mixture of boos and cheers, including chants of “Shame!” from protesters who gathered one floor below where she and the vice president spoke in the rotunda.
A handful of protestors also rallied outside the State Street Capitol entrance, carrying banners with slogans reading “Honor the Separation of Church and State” and “Voucher$ hurt our public schools.”
Joan Wallace, a Madison retiree who was among the demonstrators, told WisPolitics.com she was protesting “attempts to break down the barrier between church and state and giving vouchers to religious schools.”
“People are perfectly free to send their children to religious schools but taxpayers should not have to pay for it,” she said.
Dem Gov. Tony Evers didn’t attend the vice president’s speech. Evers, the state’s former school superintendent, proposed in his budget a series of provisions related to the state’s private voucher school and independent charter school programs. That included a freeze on the number of slots available in the choice program and new requirements for licensing teachers working in the schools. GOP lawmakers nixed the proposals.
Pence noted Evers’ absence and took a dig at him while mentioning a bill that was introduced this session to phase out the voucher program.
“I know the governor couldn’t be here with us today, so let’s make sure he hears this: We’re not going to let that happen,” Pence said to applause.
Evers met with the Wisconsin Electric Cooperative Association as part of the group’s lobby day and moved planned internal meetings to the executive residence due to security restrictions at the state Capitol, his office said. Pence’s office also didn’t invite Evers to the event, according to the gov’s staff.