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Trump Calls Education ‘Civil Rights Issue of Our Time,’ Pushes Choice

By Alyson Klein & Andrew Ujifusa — February 28, 2017 8 min read
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President Donald Trump used his first speech to a joint session of Congress Tuesday to frame education as “the civil rights issue of our time"—a line used by other leaders in both parties, including former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush.

And he called on Congress to go big on his favorite K-12 policy, school choice, without laying out specifics. He asked 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.”

The push for school choice is no surprise—it’s the education issue Trump talked about most often on the campaign trail. And Trump picked an education secretary, Betsy DeVos, who spent decades advocating for expanding vouchers and charter schools.

To underscore the power of choice, Trump pointed to Denisha Merriweather, one of a handful of honored guests, sitting with Melania Trump, the first lady.

Merriweather struggled in Florida’s public schools, and “failed 3rd grade twice,” according to Trump, before taking advantage of the state’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,” Trump said.

It wasn’t clear from the speech just what form the school legislation might take. On the campaign trail, 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 proposal may run into trouble in Congress. The Senate rejected a similar program back in 2015, when Republicans had bigger margins in the chamber, in part because rural Republicans didn’t think it would do much to help fix their schools.

Another possibility: a tax credit scholarship, such as the one Merriweather took advantage of. 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.

The Trump 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 federal grants for charter schools, which are currently funded at more than $330 million annually.

Child Care

Trump signaled he wants to make good on another campaign promise: using the tax code to help families cover the cost of childcare. He said he, “wants to work with members in both parties to make childcare accessible and affordable, to help ensure new parents have paid family leave.”

On the campaign trail, 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 President Barack Obama. “It’s not a relevant or helpful proposal for your average single working mother.”

Health Care

Trump called on lawmakers to get rid of President Barack Obama’s signature domestic achievement, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which Trump derided as the “Obamacare disaster.”

“The way to make health insurance available to everyone is to lower the cost of health insurance, and that is what we will do,” Trump said. “Obamacare is collapsing—and we must act decisively to protect all Americans. Action is not a choice—it is a necessity.”

Any changes to that law could have serious ramifications for schools. For instance, the law enticed most states to significantly expand eligibility for Medicaid, which can help schools cover the cost of services to students in special education. Education advocates worry that serious changes to the ACA—or a move to block grant Medicaid—could mean less money for schools. Changes to the ACA could also cause some children to lose health insurance, some analysts say.

But there are some parts of the ACA that advocates for school district leaders wouldn’t be sorry to see go away, such as a requirement that districts pay health-care costs for any eligible employee that works more than 30 hours per week. That rule has made it tough for some school districts to hire long-term substitutes, paraprofessionals, and others.


Trump has pushed a hard line on immigration, calling for building a wall along the border with Mexico and deporting undocumented immigrants, particularly those with criminal records.

But in the speech he signaled a willingness to work across the aisle on overhauling the nation’s immigration laws.

“I believe that real and positive immigration reform is possible, as long as we focus on the following goals: to improve jobs and wages for Americans, to strengthen our nation’s security, and to restore respect for our laws,” Trump said. “If we are guided by the well-being of American citizens, then I believe Republicans and Democrats can work together to achieve an outcome that has eluded our country for decades.”

The Trump administration hasn’t said yet what it wants to do about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program or DACA, which gave young adults who came to the United States as children a chance to remain in the country legally. Trump suggested during the campaign that he might completely repeal DACA, but lately, he’s said he’s working on another plan for those who have taken advantage of the program. But the uncertainty has some DACA recipients, including teachers, concerned about their future.

The Trump administration has stepped up deportations of undocumented immigrants in a number of states. And some children have reportedly been afraid to attend school, because of the threat of deportation.

The speech, Trump’s first address to Congress, wasn’t technically a State of the Union address, since Trump has only been in office for a little over a month. But it had all the trappings of such a speech, which presidents typically use to celebate their achievements and outline their legislative priorities.


Even without the nitty-gritty details, Trump’s school choice rhetoric won praise from Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., the chairwoman of the House education committee.

“We don’t want students left behind because of where their parents live,” she said in a quick interview after the speech. “It’s a very warm and loving thing he said.”

And Rep. Luke Messer, R-Ind., a long-time school choice fan, said it was “very exciting” to hear the issue get such high-profile play. “No president has spoken about school choice on a national stage like President Trump did.”

But the top Democrat on the panel, Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, noted that, even with some federal assistance, not all kids will have access to a high-quality private school. “The private school may choose you,” he said after the speech. “But the idea that people can choose private schools is misleading.”

And Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., a member of the anti-voucher House Public Education Caucus, pledged to fight any attempt to take money away from public schools, which he called, “the lifeblood of American democracy.”

Former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear gave the Democratic response to the speech. In prepared remarks, he criticized Trump for picking a cabinet of “billionaires and Wall Street insiders who want to eviscerate the protections that most Americans count on and that help level the playing field.”

Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos is a billionaire GOP donor and school choice advocate, who went through a rocky confirmation process, with Vice President Mike Pence ultimately having to break a tie on her nomination. Since taking the helm of the department, she has had a tough time establishing credibility with some parents and educators, who note that she doesn’t have professional experience working in public education, or at a university.

President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of Congress on Feb. 28.

--Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist hands Denisha Merriweather, left, a pen after signing a bill expanding school vouchers in 2010 in Tallahassee, Fla. Merriweather was then a student attending the Esprit de Corps Center for Learning in Jacksonville, Fla., a private school that was paid for with help from Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program. --Steve Cannon/AP-File

Surrounded by invited guests, first lady Melania Trump is applauded as she arrives on Capitol Hill on Feb. 28, for President Donald Trump’s speech to a joint session of Congress.

--Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

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