President Donald Trump used his second State of the Union address to call on Congress to enact new school choice legislation—without offering any details on what it would look like—and fund paid family leave for new parents.
“To help support working parents, the time has come to pass school choice for America’s children,” Trump said. “I am also proud to be the first president to include in my budget a plan for nationwide paid family leave—so that every new parent has the chance to bond with their newborn child.”
The school choice pitch is likely to be a tough sell in a Democratically controlled House of Representatives.
And while Trump called for an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws and increased border security, he did so without mentioning the so-called Dreamers, who face an uncertain future since Trump rescinded President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program back in 2012. That program gave temporary legal status to 700,000 undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children.
The fate of the Dreamers has big implications for K-12 schools. About 250,000 students have become DACA-eligible since 2012, and about 9,000 DACA recipients work as teachers in U.S. schools, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Federal judges have issued conflicting rulings on DACA’s legality, and its future is currently tied up in the courts.
Trump also asked lawmakers to get to work on a bipartisan infrastructure package. But it’s unclear if refurbishing schools is part of his vision, even though that’s a priority for Democrats.
It’s equally unclear if Trump’s call for school choice will find a welcome reception in Congress. So far, the administration’s efforts on choice have fallen flat, including a $1 billion competitive-grant program aimed at expanding vouchers and more. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her team also worked behind the scenes on a federal tax credit scholarship program, but that didn’t come to fruition either.
School choice fans did get a provision in the 2017 tax overhaul law allowing parents to use 529 college-savings accounts to cover the cost of private school tuition. DeVos called it a “step in the right direction,” but acknowledged that it wouldn’t meet the needs of low-income families or “empower them in significant ways.”
The nod to choice in the speech had at least one fan: DeVos.
“The President was exactly right tonight to remind the nation of his call to expand education freedom,” DeVos said in a statement. “l I look forward to continuing to work with Congress on ways to give students opportunities to pursue the education that engages their curiosity, unlocks their creativity and empowers them to reach their fullest potential. It’s time to do what’s best for kids and get to work.”
Paid Family Leave
Trump’s proposal for paid family leave doesn’t come out of nowhere. It’s something he’s been talking about since the campaign trail. He brought it up in his first address to Congress in 2017, and it was in his budget request last year.
Trump had called for six weeks paid family leave, for both mothers and fathers, including those who adopt children. But current federal law under the Family and Medical Leave Act allows some employees to take up to 12 weeks off. So far, the proposal hasn’t been able to find much support in Congress. But lawmakers did double the child care tax credit, to $2,000 per dependent child.
Trump made it clear that he sees infrastructure as one possible area of compromise with a Congress that’s now partly controlled by Democrats. But so far, the two parties haven’t seen eye-to-eye on whether to include K-12 school renovations.
“Both parties should be able to unite for a great rebuilding of America’s crumbling infrastructure,” Trump said. “I know that the Congress is eager to pass an infrastructure bill—and I am eager to work with you on legislation to deliver new and important infrastructure investment, including investments in the cutting edge industries of the future. This is not an option. This is a necessity.”
Last year, Trump unveiled a $1.5 trillion infrastructure package, but it didn’t include any resources directly dedicated to refurbishing, renovating, or constructing schools. There were some small pockets of flexible funding that could benefit schools.
But last week, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Rep. Donald Norcross, D-N.J., introduced sweeping school construction legislation that would provide $70 billion in direct funding for school repairs and rebuilding, along with $30 billion in tax-credit bonds.
There may be at least some bipartisan interest in the Senate on school construction funding. Last year, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Reed along with 23 other senators—all Democrats—urged Trump to consider partnering with states to modernize and repair schools.
One issue that didn’t come up: School safety. That issue dominated education policy last year, beginning with the Feb. 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and the student activism that followed.
Trump’s school safety commission, convened in the wake of Parkland issued its final report in December, which called for schools to take a hard look at arming “specially selected and trained” school staff—a policy few educators appear to support.
But even though Trump didn’t hit on school safety in his remarks, the issue had big visibility at the speech, with a number of lawmakers inviting guests connected to recent school shootings.
Rep. Ted Deutsch, D-Fla., brought along Manny Oliver, who started the organization Change the Ref after his son Joaquin was killed at Parkland. Pelosi brought along Fred Guttenberg, the father of Jaime Guttenberg, a Parkland victim. Fred Guttenberg has been outspoken about the need for increased gun control. She also invited Charlie Mirsky, the co-founder and political director of March for Our Lives, which helps students advocate for gun restrictions. House Democrats are currently pushing to beef up background checks in response to school shootings.
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., choose to bring Andrew Pollack, the father of Meadow Pollack, another Parkland victim. Pollack has been largely supportive of the Trump administration’s response to the tragedy.
In giving the Democratic response, Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost her bid to become governor of Georgia last year, called for bipartisanship on education and other issues.
“From now on, our leaders must be willing to tackle gun safety measures and the crippling effect of educational loans; to support educators and invest what is necessary to unleash the power of America’s greatest minds,” she said.
Lily Eskelsen García, the president of the National Education Association and a Democratic ally, panned the proposal for a border wall and seemed to push back against his call for school choice.
“Trump’s actions speak louder than his rhetoric as we have witnessed him push for the wrong priorities like building a border wall, arming teachers, giving tax cuts to the wealthy and pushing for vouchers that siphon off money from public schools,” she said in a statement. “The president should be investing in students, not walls.”
Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the chairman of the House education committee, criticized the speech for ignoring the needs of students and others. He also sounded echoed García about the prospect of a new U.S.-Mexico border barrier.
“Access to a quality education, a good-paying job, and affordable health care are fundamental issues for all Americans,” Scott said in a statement. “Rather than offering credible solutions, the president continued to spread misinformation about immigration and advocate for an ineffective and inefficient wall.”
But the American Federation for Children, the advocacy organization co-founded by DeVos, cheered the shout-out for choice.
“Just yesterday, a study by the Urban Institute found that lower-income students in the nation’s largest private school choice program were far more likely to attend four-year colleges and earn bachelor’s degrees than their public school peers,” said John Schilling, president the AFC. “It’s our hope that Congress will act swiftly to give more families and children the freedom to pursue educational options that are best suited to their individual learning styles.”
Photo: President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill. --AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite/AP