During the State of the Union address on Tuesday night, President Trump announced a scholarship for one of the guests he had invited to the speech, Janiyah Davis, a fourth-grader from Philadelphia.
She has been on the waiting list to receive the scholarship through Pennsylvania’s Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit Program, which helps a limited number of low-income students afford the school of their choice.
However, it was reported yesterday that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos will personally pay for the girl’s tuition due to donor caps instituted under Pennsylvania state law.
“Now I call on Congress to give one million American children the same opportunity Janiyah has just received,” said Trump. “Pass the Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunities Act — because no parent should be forced to send their child to a failing government school.”
The Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunities Act was introduced by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) in February of last year and has gained support from many congressional Republicans, though no Democrats have signed on to co-sponsor as of yet.
It also faces criticism from some conservative policy analysts.
Combined with its counterpart in the House, introduced by Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-AL), the legislation has been cosponsored by 120 Republicans, including 10 other Republicans from Texas: Reps. Ron Wright (R-TX-06), Randy Weber (R-TX-14), Bill Flores (R-TX-17), Brian Babin (R-TX-36), Roger Williams (R-TX-25), Dan Crenshaw (R-TX-02), Kenny Marchant (R-TX-24), Pete Olson (R-TX-22), Michael Burgess (R-TX-26), and Michael Cloud (R-TX-27).
The legislation would allow individuals and businesses to receive tax credits equal to the amount they donate to state-run educational scholarships.
These tax credits would be capped at $10 billion annually, equally split between qualified donations to scholarship-granting organizations and donations to workforce training organizations.
Participation in the program would be optional for states, which will have authority over the program and how scholarships are granted, provided that they do not “discriminate against … based in whole or in part on the provider’s religious education character or affiliation.”
The proposed bill also attempts to guard against undue federal influence in education with a provision stating, “Nothing in this Act shall be construed to permit, allow, encourage, or authorize any Federal control over any aspect of any private, religious, or home education provider, whether or not a home education provider is treated as a private school or home school under State law.”
“Across the country, we are seeing momentum build for tax credit scholarship programs — 18 states already have similar programs in place,” said Sen. Cruz in a recent press release. “This investment ensures our children and the next generation of skilled American workers are well-equipped to participate in our growing economy.”
“Education Freedom Scholarships will finally give students the opportunity to learn in places and grow in ways that have too often been denied to them,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos when the proposal was announced. “This historic investment in students honors the fact that each one of them is unique and deserves an education that’s personalized for them, unleashes their creativity, and unlocks their potential.”
Although the legislation would be a significant development in school choice policy, some conservative education experts warn that it could have unintended consequences.
“The [Trump] administration’s support for school choice is welcome and important,” said Lindsey Burke, the director of the Center for Education Policy at the Heritage Foundation. “But there are limited ways in which Washington can and should advance school choice.”
Burke said that a new program like the one Cruz is proposing would expand the role of the federal government in education, rather than reduce it.
Such a program, she argues, “would be highly susceptible to regulations by a future administration less friendly to school choice, which could have negative consequences for participating schools and education choice generally.”
Despite the provisions in the bill to guard against unwarranted federal control, Burke has cautioned that similar language in other federal education bills were side-stepped by the Obama administration, which offered “billions in federal grants and waivers from the federal No Child Left Behind law to states willing to adopt Common Core national standards and tests.”
Burke says that another potential pitfall of the legislation is that it could undermine existing school choice tax credit programs at the state level, as “a dollar-for-dollar federal program would likely lead to a siphoning of donations from state tax credit programs, which are typically less than dollar-for-dollar.”
“And unfortunately,” she says, “it complicates, rather than streamlines, the federal tax code.”
Instead of creating a tax credit program for state-run scholarships, Burke says that the federal government should focus on areas where they have constitutional jurisdiction, such as “making the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program a universal program” and “providing education savings accounts to active duty military families across the country.”
Dr. Neal McCluskey, the director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute, expressed a similar sentiment toward the legislation.
“Choice is a very good thing,” said McCluskey, “and Senator Cruz has tried his hardest to avoid dangerous centralization with this plan: it’s a tax credit, not a voucher, and it is only for states with their own credits. Nonetheless, it would be an extension of federal involvement in education, and hence both a regulation threat and unconstitutional.”
But other conservative and right-leaning organizations in Texas support the legislation.
In a statement provided to The Texan from the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), they said that they support “this bill as currently written.”
They cited the bill’s provisions to guard against federal overreach, the optional participation and program authority given to the states, and noted that it “funds the accounts using private dollars for which donors receive tax credits and which never enter government coffers.”
“While imperfect,” stated TPPF, “this legislation is the only opportunity Texas has this year to help the millions of schoolchildren who wake up each day languishing in poor-performing schools, which do nothing but condemn generation after generation to mediocrity. It would make significant progress to mitigate this injustice, give families more choices, and provide some hope for kids left waiting far too long.”
The Texas Home School Coalition (THSC) also supports the legislation, stating, “Senator Cruz has always been a champion for homeschooling and education freedom. His Education Freedom Scholarship plan would empower families to partner with private businesses to get funding for their child’s education. It’s hard to see why anyone would oppose something so common-sense.”
Update: This piece has been updated to reflect new information that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is personally paying for Janiyah Davis’ tuition.
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Daniel Friend is a reporter for The Texan. He participated in a Great Books program at Azusa Pacific University and graduated in 2019 with a degree in Political Science. He has studied C.S. Lewis’s science fiction trilogy and in his spare time you might find him writing his own novel partly inspired by the series.