In the News: Trump Highlighted This Unusual School Choice Idea Last Night

As NPR’s Anya Kamenetz notes, Donald Trump asked Congress to pass a school choice initiative in his speech Tuesday night, but he did not say anything about how the program could be funded.

feb2017-blog-ototn-tax-credits-trumpBut Trump’s speech did contain a clue as to how school choice might expand without major reappropriation of federal funds. He spoke about one of his invited guests, a young Florida woman named Denisha Merriweather:

“As a young girl, Denisha struggled in school and failed third grade twice. But then she was able to enroll in a private center for learning, great learning center, with the help of a tax credit, and a scholarship program.”

What he was actually talking about was Florida’s tax credit scholarship program. And it’s worth looking at the details if you’re curious about exactly how expanded school choice might work under this administration.

So what are tax credit programs? Kamenetz explains

Most people are familiar with voucher programs, where state dollars go to pay for tuition at private schools. These programs have faced constitutional challenges in Florida and elsewhere — among other reasons, because they direct public money to religiously based organizations.

In a scholarship tax credit program, however, the money bypasses state coffers altogether. In Florida, corporations or individuals can get a generous, dollar-for-dollar tax break by donating to a private, nonprofit scholarship organization. The money from this fund is in turn awarded to families to pay for tuition at private schools. In other words, it’s donors that get the tax credits, and families that get the scholarships.

The tax-credit structure could be a way to promote school choice on a federal level without writing big checks, and without running into problems with the Constitution over religion in schools.

Mike Petrilli has written recently about the possibility of a Trump tax credit plan.

Jason Bedrick has written extensively about tax credit programs and has refuted many arguments against them.

A study published by Education Next looked at the impact of Florida’s tax credit program on public schools.

— Education Next

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