Betsy DeVos praises Tennessee’s voucher program, but won’t say whether undocumented immigrants should be excluded

While addressing education reporters from around the nation, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said she was “thrilled” Tennessee has passed a voucher program, and that it is up to the state to work out if immigrant and undocumented students qualify for it.

DeVos’ talk on Monday at the Education Writers Association national conference in Baltimore comes less than a week after Tennessee lawmakers passed a major voucher bill, creating an education savings account program that will give taxpayer money to eligible families to pay for private school tuition or related education services.

A compromise bill between the House and Senate changed language aimed at verifying the legal status of applicants but includes a provision that still seeks to exclude immigrant students from participating.

When asked for her opinion on the provision that could affect immigrant or undocumented students, DeVos said: “I don’t think that ended up as part of the final program. I think that’s been a matter for Tennessee to debate. I can’t comment on a hypothetical. If it’s not part of the program, it’s not part of the program.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos spoke with New York Times reporter Erica Green during a journalist conference in Baltimore.

This is the first time that DeVos, the nation’s highest education official, has publicly answered questions on Tennessee’s voucher bill since an April visit to Nashville. Her comments on Monday also speak to the broader confusion around whether the bill will exclude immigrant or undocumented students.

Amid a flurry of changes to the final bill, Tennessee lawmakers included a provision that makes the new program a “public benefit,” which by state law immigrants cannot use without government-issued documentation.

The intent of the new provision is to exclude undocumented students, Sen. Dolores Gresham acknowledged last week under questioning as she sought support for the legislation she was carrying for Gov. Bill Lee.

Exclusion of undocumented students was viewed as critical to gaining support from lawmakers particularly in the House who are concerned about creating a government program that could benefit people without legal authorization to be in the country. But it also could land the state in court because of a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that requires states to offer public education to all children, regardless of their immigration status.

DeVos did not address anti-immigrant statements from President Donald Trump, but did say that she agreed with the President that “we have a crisis and we have concerns.”

“With regard to [immigrant] students who are here in our country, every state, every community is embracing them and acknowledge that they have the opportunity to learn along with the students who are apart of this country,” DeVos said.

The program would start in 2021 with up to 5,000 students from Shelby County Schools, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, and the state-run Achievement School District. It would cap eventually with 15,000 students and could cost taxpayers $165 million by 2024, according to a revised fiscal analysis released last week. The initial price tag was $125 million over three years.

It was a compromise that reconciled major differences House and Senate bills passed last week in historic votes in both chambers, which had never before jointly approved voucher legislation after more than a decade of attempts. Now, the legislation awaits Gov. Bill Lee’s signature to become law.

UPDATED: This story has been updated to include more information on the provision in the bill.