The guest list for President Donald Trump’s address to Congress Tuesday evening may hint at what school choice proposals are on the horizon from the administration.
Denisha Merriweather, who received a school voucher from Florida's tax credit scholarship program to attend a private school and eventually became the first member of her family to graduate from high school and college, will be a guest of first lady Melania Trump.
“Denisha was on the path to becoming another statistic, and following her mother and brother, who both dropped out of high school,” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said in remarks at the HBCU Congressional Luncheon Tuesday afternoon.
“But her godmother intervened, and with the assistance of a school choice program in Florida, Denisha was given a chance to attend a school that better met her needs,” she said. “This is a model we must follow – to provide every child an opportunity to attend a quality school.”
The Trump administration has yet to outline how it will pursue the president’s plan to steer $20 billion in federal funding to school choice policies – a pledge he made on the campaign trail. His forthcoming budget is likely to restore and expand the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship, but it’s unclear whether a larger school choice package will come in the form of voucher or a tax credit.
The former is more politically fraught. Voucher proposals have been universally panned by Democrats who argue that such policies would all but bankrupt public schools by redirecting funding toward private institutions, and that federal dollars can't be neatly doled out on a per-pupil basis. But they’ve also been too extreme even for many in the GOP, and efforts to include them in the recent rewrite of the federal education law – even in the more Republican-heavy House – failed.
In rural areas – places that many Republicans call home – school choice policies aren't typically well-received for the simple reason that there are no other options for education save public schools.
That’s one reason why education policy experts are betting on the latter: a federal tax credit to those who contribute to organizations that grant scholarships for low-income students to attend private schools. Such a proposal could be included in a larger tax overhaul the Trump is prioritizing.
The presence of Merriweather, a product of Florida’s tax credit program, only serves to further that prediction.
“Denisha’s story is one of struggle, difficulty and triumph,” DeVos said. “Raised by a single mother in poverty, she moved from one school to another. Failed the third grade, not once but twice.”
She continued: “Today, she’s not only the first in her family to graduate high school, she’s graduated college. And this May, she’ll graduate from her master’s program.”
Under Florida’s plan, the state uses public dollars to pay for private K-12 school tuition for low-income students and students with disabilities. Supporters say such programs are a boon to students in school districts with lots of chronically failing schools and also work well for rural school districts because parents can use the money for things like tutoring, school supplies or education computer programs.
Opponents, however, argue that it’s nearly impossible to know how well the Sunshine state’s voucher students are doing through publicly available data, and many states, including Florida, have little to no jurisdiction over private schools and don’t make student achievement data public beyond attendance.