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Betsy DeVos K-12

Trump repeats his push for a school voucher program. But how would it be accomplished?

 (Chuck Burton / Associated Press)
(Chuck Burton / Associated Press)

President Trump announced steps toward creating a national school voucher program during his speech to Congress on  Tuesday night.

"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," Trump said. "These families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious or home school that is right for them."

Trump didn't provide details, but experts have said that the most likely way to do this at a national level would be through a tax credit program.

Tax credit programs allow people and corporations to allocate some of their tax money to nonprofits that administer scholarships, and student recipients can choose from a list of private schools. The nonprofits then cover the students' tuition or school expenses. According to the National Conference on State Legislatures , 17 states currently have such programs.

But if his choice in guests is any indication, his model could be Florida. In Florida, corporations can allocate up to 75% of their income tax toward scholarship programs, and most students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch qualify.

Trump invited Denisha Merriweather, a woman who graduated form a Florida private school "with the help of a tax credit scholarship program," Trump said, after twice failing third grade. As Trump noted, she was the first in her family to graduate from high school and college and will soon complete her masters degree in social work.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has called Florida a model for education, but a recent study found that students enrolled in private schools through the state's tax credit program for poor students didn't improve their test scores from one year to the next.

The Orlando Sentinel wrote about a student who attended a school for students with disabilities through the program, but that school closed abruptly in February and administrators were charged with Medicaid fraud.

Trump campaigned on the idea of creating a nationwide, $20-billion school voucher program. And he chose DeVos, a voucher advocate , to lead the Department of Education.

Vouchers and tax credits use public money to let families attend private schools, which are often religious schools. The strategy appeals to a conservative base in urban areas, because it advances free-market philosophies and brings religious instruction into school, but does less well in rural areas, where private schools are sparse.

Democrats tend to see vouchers as a third rail in politics, since they raise questions about the separation of church and state and involve little regulation of the use of public money. In California, ballot initiatives to create voucher programs failed twice.

In introducing his ideas, Trump called education "the civil rights issue of our time," echoing language used by Arne Duncan, President Obama's first secretary of Education.

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