President Donald Trump on Wednesday asked Congress to work with him on extending school choice programs nationwide to benefit millions of students, including low-income African-American and Hispanic children.
While Trump gave no specifics on what legislation he is proposing, the statement was the clearest indication yet that he intends to follow through on his campaign promise to fund a $20 billion school choice program.
"During my campaign for president, I promised to fight for school choice," Trump said. "Very important."
Speaking at a White House event attended by about two dozen children, including some participating in a federally funded voucher program in the nation's capital, Trump said, "Every child has the right to fulfill their potential, and, if we do our jobs, then we will never have to tell young, striving Americans to defer their dreams for another day or for another decade."
The Washington, D.C., voucher program allows low-income students to use federal funds to attend private schools. Although it is the nation's only federal-funded voucher program, some states, including Vice President Mike Pence's home state of Indiana, have funded similar programs.
Trump asked lawmakers to "extend school choice to millions more children all across the United States of America, including millions of low-income Hispanic and African American children who deserve the same chance as every other child to live out their dreams and fill up their hearts and be educated at the top, top level."
The Education Department would not say what specific legislation the administration was proposing.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a long-time school choice advocate, said having access to public, charter or private schools or distance learning programs should be every parent's right. DeVos "looks forward to working with the White House and Congress on legislation that accomplishes that goal," press secretary Liz Hill said in a statement.
Mike Petrilli, president of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, said that Trump was likely referring to a federal tax program that would allow individuals and perhaps corporations to donate money to scholarship funds in exchange for tax credits.
That method would circumvent restrictions on using public money to fund religious private schools, which many states have, by giving the money directly to parents instead of schools.
"It's a roundabout way to provide scholarship to private schools for low-income and working class children," Petrilli said.
But Petrilli cautioned that such a bill might not pass the Republican-controlled Congress.
"Conservatives for a long time have wanted a smaller federal role in education and have believed that the federal government messes up everything it touches on education," Petrilli said.
But John Schilling, head of the American Federation for Children, an advocacy group that DeVos used to head, disagreed, saying such a tax credit would in fact foster local control.
"There is no greater form of local control than directly empowering parents to choose the best school for their child," Schilling said.
Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation said her conservative group supports voucher programs, but believes they should be implemented on the state, not the federal level. However, Heritage is proposing the use of federal funds to help military-connected kids and Native American children attend private schools.
The D.C. voucher program has been shown to increase graduation rates, but a government study released last week showed math scores dropping for students who participated. Other studies have also produced mixed results, but Petrilli said competition from charter and private schools has shown to improve outcomes in public schools.
DeVos, a long-time advocate for charter and private schools, has made school choice a priority. Her efforts have been met with fierce criticism from Democrats and teachers' unions, who fear that school choice options will hurt public schools.
"This administration remains committed to serving all students, especially the most vulnerable," DeVos said. "These students particularly benefit from school choice programs."
Marking national charter school week, DeVos said there are over 6,900 charter schools in the United States serving more than 3 million students. More are needed, she said.
"I believe it should be a right for every parent, not a privilege," DeVos said.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers said some parents choose to participate in the D.C. voucher program because they think private schools provide a safer environment for their children.
"If the president really listened to the public, he wouldn't slash public education budgets that go to ensuring kids have safe, strong learning environments with lower class sizes, after-school activities and enrichment opportunities, and other programs that actually help kids," Weingarten said in a statement.
Senator Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee said she would strongly oppose a school choice bill.
"If President Trump truly wanted to help low-income students succeed he would stop trying to privatize public education, stop trying to push taxpayer dollars to private schools — and work with Democrats to make sure every student has access to a high quality public education," Murray said.
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