President Donald Trump made his first school visit as president Friday afternoon—and it should be no surprise, given the administration’s emphasis on expanding school choice, that he picked a private, Catholic school in Florida near Orlando.
It’s clear that school choice is the Trump administration’s favorite education policy. What’s less clear is exactly how he plans to push it from the federal level. One possibility: a tax-credit scholarship program, like the one in place in Florida and in more than a dozen other states. Many of the students at the school Trump picked—St. Andrew Catholic School, in Pine Hills—take advantage of the Sunshine State’s version of the program.
Tax-credit scholarships allow individuals or businesses to get a federal tax break for donating to “scholarship granting organizations,” which then turn around and give money to students who want to attend a private school. Florida’s program—Step Up For Students—provides about 100,000 scholarships of up to $5,886 a year to students from families whose average income is about $24,000, said John Kirtley, the program’s founder. (More from Andrew on possible paths for a tax-credit scholarship here.)
Trump, who used the visit as a “listening session” said the school was doing a “fantastic job” and that it “enriches both the mind and the soul. That’s a good education,” according to traveling White House correspondents.
He asked 4th graders about their aspirations, and Janayah Chatelier, 10, told him that she wanted to go to Johns Hopkins University and open her own business.
Trump, a real estate developer, liked that answer. “That’s a good idea. Make a lot of money right? But don’t run for politics after,” he said.
And in response to a question from their teacher, the students told Trump in unison that their goals were “college and heaven.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who has sponsored a bill to create a federal tax-credit scholarship program, joined Trump on the trip, as did Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, as well as Trump’s daughter Ivanka, who has been credited with helping him to train his focus on children’s issues, and Ivanka Trump’s husband, White House aide Jared Kushner.
Also on hand: Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, a billionaire philanthropist and long-time voucher advocate. Trump asked DeVos if she would be “leading the charge” to fix public education. “You bet,” she answered.
Tuition at St. Andrew is $5,990 per child. The maximum tax credit scholarship would come very close to covering that amount in full, at $5,886.
So how are kids who get tax credits at St. Andrew Catholic School doing? From 2012-13 to 2014-15, using test-score gains, the percentile ranking of the average scholarship student at St. Andrew Catholic school fell by 1.73 percentile points in reading, while the average scholarship student’s percentile ranking rose by 1.44 percentile points in math, in terms of national percentile rankings. Those numbers are from a 2016 report on tax-credit scholarship students put out by Florida State University. According to Step Up for Students, the scholarship-granting organization in Florida, essentially that means those students are maintaining the same learning gains as the average student nationally. The school uses the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, according to a recent column by the St. Andrew principal in the Orlando Sentinel.
Private School Push
Symbolically, it’s telling that Trump picked a Catholic—not public—school for his first school visit. President Barack Obama, a charter fan, picked a charter in the District of Columbia for one of his earliest school tours, although he went to a Catholic school as president-elect, back in November of 2009. And President George W. Bush choose a public school in Tennessee. (You can read Bush’s speech here, which touts testing as a way to push all schools to improve and includes the line, “I think it’s racist not to test.”)
Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, which backed Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, in the presidential race, said she was disappointed that Trump chose a religious school for his first stopover.
“It’s sad that rather than listening to the public they are sworn to represent and who have a deep connection to public schools, Trump and DeVos’ first official joint trip is to a religious school, which they use as a backdrop for their ideological crusade,” said Weingarten in a statement. A better pick, according to Weingarten? Evans Community School, a public school in Orlando that pairs academics with wraparound services, like health.
And Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., noted that Trump and DeVos’ visit to the school came the same week that congressional Republicans moved to strike down accountability rules put out by the Obama administration for the Every Student Succeeds Act that civil rights groups say would ensure that states look out for vulnerable groups of students in crafting their plans for the new law.
“True school choice means that all students have access to quality public schools no matter where they live, how they learn, or how much money their parents make,” Murray said. “If President Trump and Secretary DeVos really want to help our children succeed, they will abandon their plan to siphon away billions of taxpayer dollars from public education and will work with us to reinvest in quality public schools for all students.”
President Donald Trump enters a 4th-grade class during a tour of St. Andrew Catholic School on March 3, in Orlando, Fla.
Andrew Ujifusa, Assistant Editor contributed to this article.