This Unusual School Choice Idea
In a recent speech, 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
"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
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
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
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