- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 1, 2017

On the heels of his call for an education bill to fund school choice nationwide, President Trump will visit a Catholic school in Orlando, Florida, on Friday to promote school vouchers.

The president will hold a “listening session” at St. Andrew Catholic School, a pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade school where 295 students receive scholarships funded by the state’s increasingly popular tax credit program. Students there are predominantly black and from low-income families.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Wednesday that the president will speak with parents, teachers and administrators on plans to achieve his goal of expanding school choice.

“He is determined to provide choice for every parent and opportunities for every child, regardless of their ZIP code,” Mr. Spicer said.

During his first address to Congress this week, Mr. Trump urged lawmakers “to pass an education bill that funds school choice for disadvantaged youths, including millions of African-American and Latino children.”

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

The proposal drew a furious response from labor leaders at the million-member American Federation of Teachers. AFT President Randi Weingarten criticized Mr. Trump for “seeing education as a commodity that can be voucherized or privatized.”

“He failed to lift up public education or even mention the role of higher education in preparing kids for the jobs of today and tomorrow,” she said.

Neither the White House nor Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has detailed the administration’s plans for a school choice bill.

During the presidential campaign, Mr. Trump proposed reallocating $20 billion from existing federal spending and creating block grants for states to administer as direct financial aid to students living below the poverty level. He said states should be allowed to use the money to help families afford tuition at private schools or to send their children to charter and magnet schools.

School choice advocates say they now have momentum, after eight years of opposition from President Obama.

“With the full weight of the administration joining the 68 percent of Americans who support school choice, there has never been a better time in our country’s history to give more K-12 children better access to a high-quality education,” said John Kirtley, vice chairman of the American Federation for Children.

“Now is the time to act with bold conviction. We urge school choice advocates to work with Congress and the administration to pass a federal tax credit to encourage charitable giving to state nonprofits who will provide scholarships for eligible children to attend the school of their parents’ choice,” he said.

Florida’s tax credit program, begun in 2002, has grown to benefit more than 97,000 students statewide. The program allows businesses to send money to private schools in lieu of tax payments, with the funds providing scholarships of up to $5,886 annually per student.

The neighborhood around St. Andrew Catholic School has one of the highest concentrations of tax credit scholarships in the state, with nearly 1,200 students benefiting from them.

Advocates say a federal program could be modeled on Florida’s example, giving tax breaks to corporations for donating to nonprofits that provide scholarships to private and religious schools.

Mr. Trump also called attention to the issue by inviting Florida native Kenisha Merriweather as his guest to hear his speech to Congress on Tuesday night. Ms. Merriweather received a tax credit scholarship in Florida after failing third grade twice in a public school and used the money to enroll in private learning center.

She became the first in her family to graduate from high school and college, and she will earn a master’s degree in social work this year.

“We want all children to be able to break the cycle of poverty just like Denisha,” Mr. Trump said.

Among the 17 states providing state tax credit scholarships, Florida’s program is the largest. Despite critics’ arguments to the contrary, courts have ruled that such programs don’t constitute an establishment of religion because the money paid to religious schools doesn’t come directly from the government.

Opponents of scholarship tax credits contend that private schools are not as accountable to government achievement standards as public schools. Some states require participating private schools to administer and publish results from a nationally recognized standardized test.

S.A. Miller contributed to this report.

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