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Public school advocates worried about Trump’s Education pick | TribLIVE.com
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Public school advocates worried about Trump’s Education pick

Jamie Martines
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In this Dec. 9, 2016 file photo, Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos speaks in Grand Rapids, Mich. Charter school advocate and wealthy Republican donor Betsy DeVos is widely expected to push for expanding school choice programs if confirmed as education secretary, causing outrage among teachers' unions.

Should Betsy DeVos be confirmed as the next U.S. secretary of Education after her confirmation hearing begins Tuesday, debates about school choice could expand in Pennsylvania and places such as Westmoreland County — home to only one charter school.

DeVos, a billionaire from Michigan, is best known for her strong support of school choice and her philanthropic work in this field. She has never held public office or worked in public education.

More than 1.7 million students in Pennsylvania attend district-run public schools and public charter schools, while just over 250,000 students in the state attend private schools, according to Pennsylvania Department of Education data. About 90 percent of students across the country are enrolled in public schools, including public charter schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

With so many of the state’s children enrolled in public schools, organizations such as the Pennsylvania State Education Association are worried that public schools will suffer under the new administration.

“The problem with Betsy DeVos’ approach to education is that it seems centered around moving students out of schools they’re currently attending,” said Wythe Keever, a spokesman for the PSEA, which advocates for public school teachers and education professionals.

It makes sense that parents want high-quality education, Keever said. So instead of ignoring the challenges public schools are facing, such as covering teacher pensions and health care or maintaining funding for programs and resources for students, the PSEA hopes the new administration will work to improve the public schools students already attend.

And if schools are struggling to make ends meet now, expanding school choice programs that could take more money away from public schools would make it harder to educate students, said Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.

“It’s something that parents should pay attention to because it could affect the day-to-day operations of a school,” DiRocco said.

During his campaign, Trump promised to repurpose $20 billion in existing federal funds to expand school-choice programs. According to his September statement, states would decide how the money is used.

Neither DeVos nor the Trump transition team responded to requests for comments for this article.

While Pennsylvania does not have a school voucher or tax credit program to financially assist all families who want to send their child to a school other than their local public school (there are tax credit options available to low-income students or students enrolled in some of the state’s worst-performing schools), some charter school advocates worry that efforts to expand school choice could hurt public school districts and public charter schools alike. Public charter schools are privately managed but receive public funding.

“Vouchers are essentially taking tax dollars and directly providing opportunities to fund private schools, parochial schools,” said Bob Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, an advocacy organization.

There are 20 public charter schools in Allegheny County, 11 of which are in the Pittsburgh Public Schools district.

Westmoreland County’s only charter school, the Ketterer Charter School, is in the Greater Latrobe School District, according to state Department of Education records. Some charter school advocates are optimistic that public charter schools will benefit from the new administration’s favorable attitude toward expanding school choice, said Tim Eller, executive director of the Keystone Alliance for Public Charter Schools. But any real change, he said, would have to come from the state level.

“The nature of how charter schools are authorized and permitted to operate is very political,” Eller said.

Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

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