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.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
President Trump wants Congress to fund a broad expansion of school choice targeted at low-income African-American and Latino children.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: These families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious or home school that is right for them.
CORNISH: That's from his address to Congress last night. Now, we don't have any details, but we do have some clues. And Anya Kamenetz of the NPR Ed Team is here to talk more about that. Hi there, Anya.
ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.
CORNISH: First, what do we know about school choice and voucher programs right now in terms of whether or not they really work?
KAMENETZ: The evidence is very mixed. So take charter schools, which are publicly funded. About 1 in 5 of them around the country do a lot better than the public school competition. A big chunk of them do about the same. And some do worse. And the same is pretty true of voucher programs. Those are the ones that take public money to pay for private schools.
Some voucher-funded schools have higher test scores, higher graduation rates. But a study out of Louisiana last year showed recently that voucher students actually did worse. And they learned less each year they were in those private schools.
CORNISH: So choice isn't always a slam dunk.
KAMENETZ: So what researchers are telling me is that choice can deliver improvements and close achievement gaps, but they have to be very carefully designed. And that means they have to have a lot of oversight, a lot of accountability. When schools aren't working, they need to be closed.
Also, when we talk about choice, you know, you really can't discount the effort that it can take for families to have to research their options and have to apply, sometimes win lotteries in order to take advantage of these choices that they theoretically have.
CORNISH: In the meantime, you have been reporting recently on places where school choice is actually producing solid results. What's going on?
KAMENETZ: Right. So I recently talked to Richard Kahlenberg at The Century Foundation. And he's been tracking 100 districts and charter schools around the country that are pursuing social and economic integration through choice.
RICHARD KAHLENBERG: Low-income students do much better in economically-mixed schools. So choice can be used as a way of promoting those healthy socioeconomically diverse schools.
KAMENETZ: So what they've found is that schools of choice, whether magnet schools or charter schools, if they're designed to attract both low-income and middle-income families, they can do a lot better overall. And so an example might be a Montessori curriculum or a language immersion program. These programs, you know, they attract parents with a lot of choices. And the whole system can improve because more families of means are actually electing to use those public schools.
CORNISH: The president also highlighted a guest, Denisha Merriweather, last night.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
TRUMP: Today, she is the first in her family to graduate not just from high school, but from college. Later this year, she will get her master's degree in social work. We want all children to be able to break the cycle of poverty just like Denisha.
CORNISH: She actually used something called a tax credit scholarship. I hadn't really heard of this program. It's a - sounds good, right? It's a combination of two things, a tax credit and a scholarship. But how do they actually work?
KAMENETZ: Right. This is really interesting. So there are about 20 of these tax credit scholarship programs around the country. Corporations can take money that they owe in state taxes and donate it instead to a scholarship fund. And the scholarship students like Merriweather in Florida can go to private schools, which includes religious schools.
And that last part is important because voucher school programs have sometimes faced constitutional challenges over the separation of church and state because you're taking that state money, putting it into a religious school. And the tax credit scholarship is seen as a way to get around that because that money there is technically never part of a public budget.
And, you know, you notice that Trump specifically mentioned both religious schools and home schooling last night. And that would be something really, really new, a federal program promoting the use of public funds for religious schools and for home schools.
CORNISH: That's Anya Kamenetz of NPR's Ed Team. Thanks so much.
KAMENETZ: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.