- The Washington Times - Friday, March 3, 2017

President Trump pushed his plan for a school voucher program Friday while touring St. Andrews Catholic School in Orlando, Florida, where a large number of students benefit from a state tax-credit program that works similar to vouchers.

Mr. Trump said that he expected to make quick progress on his school choice policies, saying the effort would be led by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who accompanied him.

“Betsy’s going to lead the charge, right?” he said at a listening session with parents, teachers and administrators at the school.

“You bet,” answered Mrs. DeVos.

“Education is the civil rights issue of our time and it is why I’ve asked Congress to support a school choice bill and we’ve come a long way,” said the president. “We’re right out there and we are ahead of schedule when it comes to education.”

Mr. Trump’s plan faces solid opposition from teachers unions that also fought tooth and nail against the confirmation of Mrs. DeVos, a longtime school choice activist.

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.

Mr. Trump also was accompanied by Kenisha Merriweather, a Floridian who was his guest Tuesday night at his address to a joint session of Congress.

Ms. Merriweather personified his vision for public education. She received one of Florida’s tax credit scholarships after failing third grade twice in a public school. She used the money to enroll in a private learning center.

Mr. Trump introduced her at the listening session as the first in her family to graduate from high school and college, noting that she went on to earn a master’s degree in social work this year.

A round of applause broke out from the parents and educators gathered around the table.

In the speech Tuesday, Mr. Trump touted his education plan for “leveling the playing field for the next generation.”

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

For the school tour, Mr. Trump was joined by Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Sen. Marco Rubio, the state’s junior senator.

Mr. Rubio, who was defeated by Mr. Trump in the GOP presidential primary, flew to Orlando with the president aboard Air Force One.

Dave Boyer contributed to this story.

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