President Donald Trump used his State of the Union Address last week to urge Congress to greenlight a plan that would provide federal tax credits for scholarships to private schools and other education services, offering the largest stage yet for one of his administration’s key education priorities.
“The next step forward in building an inclusive society is making sure that every young American gets a great education and the opportunity to achieve the American Dream,” Trump said. “Yet, for too long, countless American children have been trapped in failing government schools.”
States have sought to “rescue these students” with tax-credit scholarship programs, he said, gesturing to invited guests Stephanie Davis, a mother from Philadelphia, and her 4th grade daughter, Jayinah, who is on the waitlist for Pennsylvania’s tax-credit scholarship program. Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, vetoed an expansion of the program last year. Trump said a scholarship had “become available” for Jayinah. (A federal official later confirmed that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos planned to personally contribute to the cost of her enrollment at a private school.)
“Now, I call on the Congress to give 1 million American children the same opportunity Janiyah has just received,” he said. “Pass the Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunity Act, because no parent should be forced to send their child to a failing government school.”
He also called for an expansion of career and technical education and touted his administration’s recent guidance on prayer in schools.
While Republican members of Congress stood and heartily applauded the education themes in Trump’s one-hour and 20-minute address, the Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunity Act has not advanced in Congress since DeVos first championed it a year ago.
Trump’s renewed pitch came on the eve of the Senate’s vote to aquit the president in his impeachment trial and at the start of an intense election year. It was included among other lofty proposals in his annual address, setting the stage for possible efforts in the next year and—if he wins re-election—in a second term. And a mention of education is significant as even DeVos has acknowledged Trump hasn’t made it a key priority.
The push also comes at a polarizing time for school choice in general: 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have questioned their party’s position on charter schools, which have generally been more broadly accepted by both parties than tax-credit and voucher programs.
The school choice proposal Trump hailed calls for up to $5 billion in federal tax credits that would provide a dollar-for-dollar match in exchange for contributions to scholarship programs in participating states. Currently, 18 states have tax-credit scholarship programs. Under the Trump administration plan, a taxpayer could receive a tax credit of up to 10 percent of his adjusted gross income in a given year, directing that money toward his children’s education instead.
DeVos has said those scholarships could go beyond providing tuition to private schools. In a back-to-school tour last year, she painted a picture of families using the tax credits to customize an education according to a student’s individual needs using private tutoring, home school, educational materials, and other supplementary services.
“Tonight, the president delivered a strong message in support of America’s students and their futures,” she said in a statement after the speech. “Every student, parent, and teacher should be excited by this bold agenda to free them from a government system that limits their success.”
But the Education Freedom Scholarship bill, and the administration’s other school choice pitches, have been considered a long shot from the start. In 2018, a GOP-controlled Congress rejected a much smaller proposal of $1 billion in school choice grants included in Trump’s annual budget proposal.
And there is even division among organizations that typically align with the Trump administration on school choice issues. The conservative Washington think tank the Heritage Foundation, for example, has suggested that vouchers and tax-credit scholarships are better left up to states to administer and that a federal program may open the door to greater government intervention in private schools under future administrations.
Last year, Trump made a short, unspecific reference to “school choice,” but he hasn’t spent much time on education in his past remarks.
Advocates for vouchers and tax-credit scholarships say they provide needed flexibility for families, particularly in areas with underperforming public schools.
“Despite what you might hear tomorrow from both sides, expanding opportunity and choices for kids is not a partisan issue,” the Center for Education Reform, which supports private school choice, tweeted the day before the Feb. 4 address.
Opponents Sound Alarm
But some education groups have argued that private school choice programs channel public funds, or forgone tax dollars, away from supporting and improving the public schools the majority of students attend, undermining them in the process.
“This bill provides individuals and corporations a dollar-for-dollar credit, which operates less like a tax incentive and more like a direct transfer of taxpayer funds away from the public education fund and into private schools. The tax credit is a shell game designed to hide that the program is a voucher,” the National Coalition for Public Education, a group of education and civil rights groups that oppose public funding for private schools, said in a statement.
After the speech, groups including advocates for the separation of church and state and national teachers’ unions were quick to criticize the Trump administration plan.
“Parents and educators have rejected these programs, knowing that a child’s opportunity for success should not be left to chance,” National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García said in a statement. “They agree that if we’re serious about every child’s future, elected officials need to listen and get serious about doing what works. This means providing resources to our neighborhood public schools so that students have inviting classrooms, a well-rounded curriculum, class sizes that are small enough for one-on-one attention, and support services such as health care, nutrition, and after-school programs for students who need them.”
Civil rights organizations have also sounded alarms that private school choice programs may support enrollment at faith-based schools that may bar or restrict admission to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students or students with LGBTQ parents.
The Education Freedom Scholarship Bill, sponsored by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., prohibits states participating in the federal program from actions that “discriminate against, or otherwise disadvantage” faith-based schools.
Trump’s push for its passage comes after his administration supported Montana parents who argued in a major education case before the U.S. Supreme Court that the state violated their religious liberty when it prohibited recipients of state-level tax-credit scholarships from using them at religious schools. The court is expected to rule in that case by late June.
A version of this article appeared in the February 12, 2020 edition of Education Week as Trump Touts Tax-Break Plan in State of Union Address