JEFFERSON CITY — A tax credit program intended to raise money for private school scholarships would cure many of the ills of the national education system, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos told a friendly audience Monday.

Speaking to the Missouri Chapters Conference of the Federalist Society in the Missouri House chambers, DeVos promoted the tax credit plan, first proposed in early 2019, criticized how her agency has enforced anti-discrimination laws and questioned whether the federal government should be involved in education at any level.

"It's the conservative, federalist cure for what plagues education," DeVos said of the so-called Education Freedom Scholarships. "It connects dollars to students, not to the system. Education that works for each student shouldn't be determined by the government."

The proposal would offer tax credits for donations to groups offering scholarships for private schools, apprenticeships and other educational programs.

Critics who were not in attendance Monday questioned the intent and impact of the proposal.

It's another conservative scheme to privatize education at the expense of public education, said Kathy Steinhoff, president of the Columbia Missouri National Education Association.

Most of the $5 billion wouldn't be used in public schools, she said.

"This will harm public education by taking dollars away," Steinhoff said.

Columbia Public Schools Superintendent Peter Stiepleman said he thinks the proposal would take money away from public schools.

"Additionally, I can't see how they would support legislation that has zero accountability — no guidelines for background checks, health requirements or even annual testing," he wrote in a text message. "It doesn't even require a site visit."

Both Steinhoff and Stiepleman opposed DeVos being approved as education secretary.

State Rep. Greg Razer, D-Kansas City, ranking Democrat on the House Higher Education Committee, said he opposes the tax credits, saying that local money should stay in local school districts.

"If a religious institution wants to have a school, that is great," Razer said. "If they want to charge tuition, that is fine. But I don't think we need to be using taxpayer dollars to be sending kids to private schools, especially those run by religious organizations. That is a line that I can't get past."

DeVos said her agency also is working to undo Obama administration regulations governing how universities handle sexual assault cases under Title IX.

Enforcement of Title IX is one of the federal government's biggest regulatory overreaches, DeVos said.

She criticized the "Dear Colleague" letter issued by Arne Duncan, education secretary under President Barack Obama, that provided guidance to universities regarding handling of sexual assault incidents on campuses.

"The Department of Education once again operates under the rule of law, not rule by letter," DeVos said.

The letter was an example of overreach, she said.

"It was an egregious use of government force," she said.

Her agency is working on new guidance that will protect sexual assault survivors and those who have been falsely accused, she said.

"We can combat sexual assault without abandoning due process," DeVos said.

A panel discussion on Title IX started before DeVos' remarks, with Columbia attorney Brent Hayden; Andy Hayes, University of Missouri vice chancellor for Civil Rights and Title IX; and Ben Trachtenberg, associate professor in the MU Law School.

"The rights of the accused are protected throughout the entire process" at MU, Hayes said during the panel discussion.

Trachtenberg, speaking by phone after DeVos spoke, said it's common for administrations of another party to dislike and try to undo what the previous administration did, including Title IX regulations. He said he's not a member of the Federalist Society, but was happy to take part in the panel.


"The proposed Trump administration regulations are quite detailed," Trachtenberg said. "They just happen to be different."

The proposed regulations are every bit as involved in telling universities what to do and how to do things related to Title IX as were those of the Obama administration, he said.

"I don't think it's true the Trump administration is withdrawing," Trachtenberg said.

As she questioned the role of the federal government in education, DeVos noted that the Constitution is silent on the subject.

"The founders spilled no ink on education," DeVos said.

Even from the friendly audience, the remark drew only a smattering of applause, though the attorneys gave her a standing ovation at the end of her speech.

Steinhoff said founders John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were strong supporters of public education.

The Federalist Society is a nationwide organization of conservative lawyers, law students and scholars.

"I'm pleased to be before a group that protects the Constitution as it was written, as it should be," DeVos said.

DeVos criticized the agency she leads, saying the department was established by President Jimmy Carter to gain favor of teachers in the National Education Association. She described the department as a "government-run monopoly."

"States are where the action is, or at least, where it should be," she said.

States and local governments can handle everything better than the federal government, including education, she said.

The federal government's involvement hasn't done anything to improve the achievement gap that exists between black and white and rich and poor students, she said.

DeVos promoted the Trump administration's protection of students' religious freedom.

"The First Amendment right of free exercise of religion protects freedom of religion, not freedom from religion," DeVos said. "No one forfeits their right to pray anywhere."

They also would be free to join student religious organizations, she said.

Students have always been free to pray on their own at school, Steinhoff said. She often observes students praying, especially during religious holidays, she said. Student religious organizations also are common, she said.