As Denisha Merriweather sat with First Lady Melania Trump during the President’s joint session to Congress on Tuesday night, she became a symbol of real progress for millions of American youth who still lack choice in education. President Trump’s decision to highlight the success of programs that offer tax credits to spur charitable donations to K-12 scholarship programs is welcome news for millions of parents and children. He addressed the issue again in Florida at a local Catholic school on Friday.
The idea being considered by the White House is simple yet powerful. It would fulfill President Trump’s campaign promise for a national school-choice initiative. Democrats and Republicans should be applauding. There can be little debate that millions of children are trapped in failing schools. The tax credit would dramatically increase charitable scholarship dollars to make private options — including religious schools and non-sectarian private academies — more accessible to low and middle-class families.
In Washington these days, even a good idea can bring out its critics.
On the Left, the opposition is naturally led by the two national teachers unions. This opposition is not intellectual, but rather the dying gasp of a public monopoly that opposes giving parents an increased ability to choose an option beyond the grip of the unions.
The teacher union opposition is knee-jerk. They simply oppose any school choice initiative that allows lower-income parents greater freedom to choose a private school, whether a voucher, a school-choice block grant, education savings account, or increased tax incentive for scholarships.
On the Right, some simply oppose any federal education initiative, with some favoring the elimination of the U.S. Department of Education altogether. Blocking any federal role in educational standards or curriculum decisions may have merit, but scholarship tax credits are a 50-state solution they should be embracing.
The Heritage Foundation’s Lindsey Burke fears that a scholarship tax credit will lead to federal regulation of private schools. But nonprofit scholarship funds already benefit from the charitable deduction, without this overreach. There is no reason to believe that increasing this incentive for donations to scholarship funds — by moving to the higher tax incentives of a dollar-for-dollar tax credit — will change the regulatory structure at all.
Heritage’s Burke also warns that a scholarship tax credit would come at the expense of state and local control and “policy experimentation and innovation.” That simply is untrue. All existing state programs would be unaffected, and states would retain the ability to encourage or discourage whatever they wanted through state tax codes.
With President Trump in the White House and Republicans in charge of both houses, the bad bill that Burke envisions is not likely.
In lieu of a federal scholarship tax credit, Burke advocates for a small-potatoes approach toward educational choice that would expand the D.C. Scholarship program and add choices for military families and Native Americans. Nice ideas all, but hardly the bold national solution children need.
The “do little” strategy embraced by Heritage would leave millions of students stranded in bad schools. The fact that many of these students live in blue or purple states does not mean they are less deserving of school choice. A federal scholarship tax credit would deliver meaningful school choice to children in all 50 states.
From a limited government standpoint, using a tax credit this way is the ideal mechanism to encourage increased private charitable funds that would immediately improve the educational quality and opportunity for tens of thousands more children nationwide. This solution stands in stark contrast to expanding the educational bureaucracy to administer and oversee higher government spending that would then flow through state and school district bureaucracies, with only the remaining crumbs trickling down to help students.
It’s been said often that education is the civil rights struggle of our time — as reiterated by the president in his speech to Congress. Yet many states — ironically, many of them Democrat-controlled states — refuse to expand educational options for children, including those in high-need communities. The intransigence of these blue and purple states is not unlike those who resisted the civil rights struggles of two generations ago.
President Trump has the ability to liberate children in these states from bad schools — a move his predecessor was too timid to embrace. Trump also needs to ensure that existing religious scholarship organizations could participate in this new scholarship tax credit.
Democratic Party stalwarts who benefited from private or parochial school education include former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, and even NYC teacher union boss Michael Mulgrew. Many on the Left are denying that same option to countless kids in failing public schools.
Students deserve options and parents deserve greater choice. The President is on the right track. Now is the time for action.