As Trump Renews Push for School Choice, Specifics Still Scarce

Denisha Merriweather, center, whose family took advantage of a tax-credit scholarship program in Florida so that the could attend a Christian school in Jacksonville, is acknowledged by President Donald Trump during his address to a joint session of Congress in Washington.
Denisha Merriweather, center, whose family took advantage of a tax-credit scholarship program in Florida so that the could attend a Christian school in Jacksonville, is acknowledged by President Donald Trump during his address to a joint session of Congress in Washington.
—Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Tells Congress such options aid disadvantaged youth

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Now that President Donald Trump has given his first big speech to Congress, it's clearer than ever that he remains serious about his campaign-trail pledge to expand school choice.

Trump called on lawmakers to "pass an education bill that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth, including millions of African-American and Latino children. These families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious, or home school that is right for them."

But the nitty-gritty details of what form that expansion might take remain elusive.

And beyond choice—Trump's only specific discussion of K-12 in his Feb. 28 address—it remains tough to say what other policy proposals might be on the president's K-12 priority list.

That's a big shift from the past two presidents, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, both of whom were knee-deep at this point in their presidencies in the education initiatives that would define their K-12 legacies.

Obama by late February 2009 had already signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which poured some $100 billion into education and financed some of his marquee competitive-grant programs, including Race to the Top. And Bush spent much of his first week in office laying the groundwork for what became the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act less than a year later.

Choice Push

In his address to Congress, Trump did touch briefly on a broad swath of issues aside from choice that have a big impact on schools, including immigration, health care, and expanded access to child care, though without offering any concrete proposals.

The strongest signal in that speech of what the administration may have in store came not from a policy white paper, but from Trump's recognition of a person: Denisha Merriweather, a guest of first lady Melania Trump. Merriweather "failed 3rd grade twice" according to Trump, before taking advantage of Florida's tax-credit scholarship program.

She used the funds to attend Esprit de Corps Center for Learning in Jacksonville and became the first member of her family to graduate from high school and college, according to the White House. Now, she's set to get a master's degree in social work, Trump said.

"We want all children to be able to break the cycle of poverty just like Denisha," he said.

Advocates say the administration is mulling a federal tax-credit scholarship similar to the Florida program Merriweather benefited from.

That would give individuals and corporations a break on their taxes, in exchange for donating to scholarship-granting organizations, now in place in more than a dozen states. Those organizations, in turn, offer money to low-income and other students to attend private schools.

The credit could help the Trump administration accomplish its goal of expanding school choice without cutting federal funds for schools. One possible model: legislation introduced by Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind., and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. Trump was scheduled to visit St. Andrew Catholic School in Orlando, Fla., on March 3 for a "listening session" on school choice.

To be sure, there are other possible paths for expanding choice. While out campaigning, Trump pitched a new, $20 billion program that would allow federal funding to follow students to the school of their choice, including a private school.

But that might be a tougher lift politically. The Senate rejected a similar program back in 2015, when Republicans had bigger margins in the chamber, in part because Republicans from rural states didn't think it would do much to help fix their schools.

The administration could also seek more money for federal programs that bolster choice, including the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, which offers vouchers in the District of Columbia, or could hike grants for charter schools, which are currently funded at more than $330 million annually.

Child-Care Agenda

Trump signaled in his speech that he wants to make good on another campaign promise: using the tax code to help families cover the cost of child care. The president said he "wants to work with members in both parties to make child care accessible and affordable, to help ensure new parents have paid family leave."

During the campaign, Trump pitched broadening access to child care, primarily through tax credits. His proposal called for six weeks of guaranteed maternity leave—but not paternity leave—for new parents whose employers don't already offer the benefit.And it called for making child-care costs tax deductible for individuals earning up to $250,000 a year, or couples earning $500,000 a year or less. Lower-income families would be able to take advantage of the program through an expanded "earned income" tax credit.

Some experts worry that the approach—which Trump's daughter Ivanka helped to champion—wouldn't do much to ensure that the poorest families get access to child care.

"It's a great proposal for Ivanka Trump," said Carmel Martin, the executive vice president for policy at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, who served in the U.S. Department of Education under Obama. "It's not a relevant or helpful proposal for your average single working mother."

Dearth of Details

Though Trump hasn't provided as many policy specifics as Bush or as Obama had by this point in their presidencies, that might be as much about the current moment in K-12 policy as it is about the man in the White House, said Sandy Kress, who served as a White House aide on education issues in the Bush administration.

"I think we're living in different times," he said. He noted that the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, the law that replaced the NCLB Act, turns control of most education policy decisions over to states.

"ESSA is a reflection of the fact that there's not much interest now in either party on education policy," Kress said. "This is not going to be micro-policy federal programs and all of the kinds of things that Bush or Obama had done."

During his first week in office, Bush released an outline of what became the NCLB law and gave one of his first and most prominent speeches on the subject of K-12 education, Kress recalled.

The law called for states to test their students annually in reading and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school, and to break out the testing results of certain groups of students, including English-language learners and those in special education.

Even though ESSA rolls back the federal footprint considerably, both of those core tenets remain in place.

By the time Obama gave his first address to Congress on Feb. 25, 2009, lawmakers had already approved the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act's massive pot of money to help schools weather the recession, including $4 billion for a Race to the Top program. Among other features, the program rewarded states for adopting the Common Core State Standards, which remain on the books in 36 states and the District of Columbia.

And in his speech, Obama laid down a marker: America would lead the world in college graduates by 2020. He referred to that goal throughout his presidency to make the case for everything from increasing access to early-childhood education to an ultimately unsuccessful push for free community college.

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"He never lost sight of that North Star of what we were pushing for," said Martin of the Center for American Progress. As for the Trump team? "I don't think they've laid out an affirmative agenda" for public education, Martin said.

But Rep. Luke Messer, R-Ind., one of the biggest congressional champions of school choice, saw Trump's recent speech as a major marker on the issue.

"No president has spoken about school choice on a national stage like President Trump did," he said.

Vol. 36, Issue 24, Page 14

Published in Print: March 8, 2017, as Trump Renews Push for School Choice, Specifics Scarce
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