— The Hill (@thehill) December 9, 2019
President Donald Trump used a Monday White House event held to promote school choice and urge Congress to consider a proposal that would use federal tax credits to help pay for a variety of educational services, including private school tuition.
Those who joined Trump included Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican and the sponsor of a Senate version of that proposal; U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos; students and teachers who use state-level school choice programs; and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has successfully championed choice in his state.
“As president, I am fighting every day for the forgotten American,” Trump said, citing criminal justice reform, the creation of Opportunity Zones, and declining unemployment rates as accomplishments. He spoke as a House committee held an impeachment hearing.
“Now is the time to fight for the forgotten child, and that’s what we are doing with respect to education,” Trump said. “For decades, countless children have been trapped in failing government schools. In my administration, these children are forgotten no longer.”
‘Education Freedom Scholarships’
The proposed $5 billion annual “Education Freedom Scholarships” program, included in legislation introduced by Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., would provide federal tax credits for scholarship contributions in states that choose to participate. (Cruz’s bill would provide $10 billion in annual tax credits.) Families could use those scholarships to send their children to private schools, or to pay for supplemental educational products and services, like tutoring.
The proposal, first unveiled in February, was cheered by some supporters who believe that students need more educational options. But the plan has divided even some supporters of private school choice who fear it could lead to increased federal intervention in private schools. And opponents of private school choice such as voucher programs say they funnel money away from public schools and that they may pose unfair barriers to some students, like LGBTQ students who may be turned away from faith-based schools.
Many education policy watchers also declared the bill dead-on-arrival due to lack of congressional support. And DeVos herself said this summer that education “has not been at the top of [Trump’s] list of priorities to address directly.”
Trump and Cruz criticized groups they said were opposed to school choice such as teachers’ unions, which have pushed for tighter regulations on charter schools and opposed state-level tax-credit scholarship and voucher programs.
Trump called out Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, for vetoing a bill that would have expanded the state’s private school choice program. In his June veto message, Wolf said the current tax-credit scholarship program “lacks accountability and oversight.” He also rhetorically questioned why the state would increase its funding when there are bigger priorities for K-12 in Pennsylvania.
On the other hand, the president praised DeSantis for expanding school choice in his state and promoting a new voucher program targeted at middle-income families.
‘We should be at the top of the list’
School choice programs are necessary because children deserve freedom and not to be “locked into a school system that’s terrible,” Trump said.
“Worldwide we are probably ranked about 36 and yet we spend more per pupil than any other country in the world, far more per pupil,” he said. “We should be at the top of the list, not mired down toward the middle and even worse than that.”
Trump did not address efforts to improve the traditional public schools that a majority of U.S. students attend.
Was he right about spending and achievement? The most recent results from the Program for International Student Assessment show that the U.S. has gained ground against some other countries despite its largely stagnant student performance because those countries’ results have weakened in recent years. You can check out where the United States ranked in various categories here.
U.S. spending on elementary and secondary education ranks high on an international index maintained by Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, but a few other countries rank higher. And education equity advocates say the United States still needs to do more and to do a better job of targetting resources toward effective strategies and to students who need it most.
If the Trump administration’s scholarship bill passes, it “will be the most significant federal civil rights victory of modern times,” Cruz said, praising DeVos’ advocacy of the proposal.
“This is all about millions of kids—millions of inner city kids, millions of African-American kids, millions of Hispanic kids—trapped right now desperate for hope,” the Texas senator told Trump. “And it is only the corrupt bureaucracy that is telling them no... There is nothing on the domestic front that I believe will have a longer legacy in your presidency that if and when we get this done.”