President Trump, in his recent address to Congress, echoed a long-running campaign theme, urging lawmakers to introduce a “school choice” initiative that would allow “disadvantaged youth” to attend a “public, private, charter, magnet, religious or home school.”
One of Trump’s guests Tuesday night in the House chamber gallery was Denisha Merriweather, who, after twice failing third grade, the president pointed out, graduated from a Florida private school "with the help of a tax credit scholarship program" and is now finishing a master’s degree.
Trump highlighted vouchers again Friday during his first official school visit as president — to a Catholic school that is run out of the Diocese of Orlando, Fla.
If Merriweather’s appearance and Trump’s Orlando visit are any indication, Trump’s model for how to spread school choice could be Florida’s program. That state uses a tax credit scholarship program to funnel public dollars to private schools.
At St. Andrew Catholic School in Orlando, Trump mentioned the possibility of tax credit scholarships as a way forward, said Ron Matus. Matus directs policy and public affairs for Step Up for Students, the organization that manages Florida’s scholarship donations.
Here’s a primer on private school choice in Florida, and how it might translate nationally — and affect even voucher-averse states such as California.
What are school vouchers?
Vouchers provide public money to families so that children can attend private schools, including religious schools.
Why are they so controversial?
Opponents, including many Democrats, believe they blur or even violate the separation of church and state, and these critics worry about the use of public money without adequate regulation.
What are tax credit scholarships, and how are they different from vouchers?
There are two different models of tax credit programs to pay for tuition.
One allows parents to write off a certain amount of income tax and apply that money toward private school tuition. The deduction tends to be far smaller than the cost of tuition, so some argue that it most benefits people who already have the means to send their kids to such schools.
The other model — which Trump has praised — is more indirect. Businesses get tax breaks by donating money to nonprofit organizations. Those organizations then give students scholarships to private or parochial schools.
How does the Florida tax credit scholarship work?
Companies get dollar-for-dollar tax credits for their contributions to nonprofit scholarship organizations. Depending on the type of tax, they can get credit for between 50% and 100% of their tax liabilities through the program.
Parents apply for scholarships by submitting pay stubs, tax returns and other financial documents. If eligible, they can get up to $5,886 per student and apply that money toward tuition at a set list of private K-12 schools. The average cost of private school in Florida this year is $7,864.
Who is eligible for a Florida tax credit scholarship?
The program is focused on low-income families. Initially, families making up to 185% of the federal poverty line, or about $45,000 for a family of four, were eligible for new scholarships, and they could renew if they were making up to 200% of the federal poverty line, Matus said.
Starting this school year, higher-income families making up to 260% of the poverty line, or $64,000 for a family of four, were eligible for smaller scholarship amounts. In all, about 98,000 students use the scholarships.
What kind of schools get the money?
Eighty-five percent of Florida schools that accept the scholarship are religious schools, according to David Figlio, an education and social policy professor at Northwestern University, who evaluated the program a few years ago.
What kind of regulations do the schools face?
Students who use scholarships to attend these schools don’t take statewide standardized tests, but they do take another exam, with separately reported results.
Schools that get $250,000 a year from the scholarship program must have an independent certified public accountant file an audit on its financial practices, to make sure they aren’t misusing the public funds.
A number of private schools that get scholarship money specifically for serving students with disabilities have had problems, such as fraud and forgery. When Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos called Florida a model for school reform, Megan Allen, a former state teacher of the year, responded on Twitter that she “wouldn’t recommend” it.
How do students who use the scholarship money perform academically?
Figlio said his research shows that, on average, “students did no better and no worse than I predicted they would have done had they stayed in public school.” Despite that finding, some private schools did significantly better than public schools, while others did worse. Figlio found no patterns among the bottom and top performers.
Voucher opponents worry that diverting public money to private schools could spell the death of traditional public schools. Did vouchers hurt public schools in Florida?
No. To some extent, they have helped.
Slight improvements were reported in public schools that suddenly found themselves having to compete against private schools for students and money.
What might a national tax credit scholarship look like?
Trump has provided few specifics, but Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, a right-leaning think tank, believes that one option could involve tax credit scholarships that could be used across state lines. “If that goes through, it could mean that vouchers are coming to California,” Petrilli said.
Californians twice voted down ballot initiatives proposing voucher programs. The possibility of vouchers concerns some state officials. If more private schools open as a result, said Mike Kirst, president of the State Board of Education, school districts will see significantly less money from the state.
How could a voucher program become law?
Congress could attach a tax credit scholarship to a tax reform bill in an effort to bypass the education committees and bring along some Republicans who want tax reform but might otherwise oppose vouchers. Teachers unions and other school choice critics have vowed to fight any such plan.
Trump’s visit to the Florida school divided at least one household, too — at least a little. Myrna Saint-Juste and her son, Marcus Millen, 16, a St. Andrew graduate, were invited by the school to come speak to Trump.
Saint-Juste, a Haitian immigrant and Hillary Clinton voter, agrees with Trump on school choice, but that’s about it. She declined the invitation.
Her son accepted.