In his speech last night, President Trump asked Congress to pass a broad school choice initiative.
"I am calling upon members of both parties 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."
It's not clear yet exactly how a program like this could be funded. "There isn't that much money that is fungible from the federal education budget," points out Samuel Abrams, an expert in education policy at Teachers College, Columbia University.
There is currently a bill in the House that would replace the major federal education law with block grants, including for vouchers. However, that law was reauthorized with broad bipartisan support in 2015, making such a reversal difficult.
But Trump's speech did contain a clue as to how school choice might expand without major reappropriation of federal funds. He spoke about one of his invited guests, a young Florida woman named Denisha Merriweather:
"As a young girl, Denisha struggled in school and failed third grade twice. But then she was able to enroll in a private center for learning, great learning center, with the help of a tax credit, and a scholarship program."
What he was actually talking about was Florida's tax credit scholarship program. And it's worth looking at the details if you're curious about exactly how expanded school choice might work under this administration.
Most people are familiar with voucher programs, where state dollars go to pay for tuition at private schools. These programs have faced constitutional challenges in Florida and elsewhere — among other reasons, because they direct public money to religiously based organizations.
In a scholarship tax credit program, however, the money bypasses state coffers altogether. In Florida, corporations or individuals can get a generous, dollar-for-dollar tax break by donating to a private, nonprofit scholarship organization. The money from this fund is in turn awarded to families to pay for tuition at private schools. In other words, it's donors that get the tax credits, and families that get the scholarships.
The tax-credit structure could be a way to promote school choice on a federal level without writing big checks, and without running into problems with the Constitution over religion in schools.
The Florida program, created in 2001, has been popular. In the 2015-2016 school year, 92,000 students received scholarships, a 17 percent increase from the year before. The state's scholarship organization, Step Up for Students, announced that the recipients were overwhelmingly African-American and Hispanic, with incomes just above the poverty line. Over 70 percent of the scholarships are directed at religious, primarily Christian, schools.
Florida's tax credit scholarships was recently ranked No.1 in the country by a group called the American Federation for Children. That's the advocacy organization that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos chaired until she was nominated. Last fall, AFC issued a report ranking the existing private school choice programs. There are 50 of them, located in 25 states and Washington, D.C., by AFC's count.
AFC awarded high marks to Florida's program for its:
- Broad eligibility, reaching families with incomes up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level.
- The generosity of the tax break to donors, a dollar-for-dollar match with a cap that increases automatically each year.
- The large size of scholarships, nearly $6,000.
However, not everyone is a fan. The Florida Education Association, a statewide teachers union, sued to challenge the program in cooperation with the NAACP, the League of Women Voters and other groups. The suit was dismissed in the lower courts, which said the union and the other parties did not have standing to challenge it. In January, the Florida Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the union, argues that the fund violates Florida students' constitutional right to a "uniform education." That's because schools that receive scholarship funds "don't have to follow the state curriculum, don't have to participate in testing, don't have to hire certified teachers." In fact, teachers don't even need bachelor's degrees. "They don't have to follow the same rules."
The AFC awarded Florida's program 26 out of a possible 28 points for accountability. The private schools are required to administer a standardized test of some kind, though not necessarily the state test. There is no mechanism to close schools that underperform, or take away their eligibility for the scholarship.
Denisha Merriweather, President Trump's guest last night, says she's living proof that tax credit scholarships work. She wrote an op-ed in 2015 in support of the program. "It gave me a fresh start and an opportunity to try out a different school that fit me like a glove, just like it has done for thousands of other students over the past 13 years."
A version of this story previously appeared on NPR Ed on Jan. 31.