On the topic of education, President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address was met with drastically different reactions in the Northwest.
As Trump touted his Education Freedom proposal – which would provide up to $5 billion in federal tax credits for donations to scholarships at private, faith-based schools – he also complained that “no parent should be forced to send their child to a failing government school.”
For Jeremy Shay, president of the Spokane Education Association, the collective bargaining unit for Spokane teachers, the message was an insult.
“I believe that we have amazing public schools here and across the state of Washington,” said Shay, one of three generations of his family to attend North Central High School.
“The president’s claim about failing public schools has no merit in our community,” Shay said.
But in Seattle, school choice activist Liv Finne heard Trump’s words and said to herself, “Yes, he’s right.”
As director of the Seattle-based Center for Education at Washington Policy Center, Finne has worked for years to promote school choice and charter schools.
“Every day, families in poor ZIP codes are sent to schools that education leaders know will fail them,” said Finne, who recently toured Pride Prep, one of two charter schools in Spokane.
“I was very impressed with what’s happening at Pride Prep,” Finne said. “What really struck me as the flexibility of the charters school model – students can learn at different levels.”
A charter school is a public school that is free and open to any student living in the state. Operated by nonprofit organizations, they are guided by specific missions.
They cannot be run by religious, sectarian or private, for-profit companies. However, opponents claim they divert funding from public school systems.
Among them is the Washington Education Association, the umbrella bargaining unit for all public school teachers.
“Right now the WEA is trying to kill every charter school,” Finne said.
Trump’s Education Freedom initiative opens a new front in the battle for education dollars.
Advocated by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the plan is simple, and 18 states already use similar programs.
“The president delivered a strong message in support of America’s students and their futures,” DeVos said in a statement. “Every student, parent and teacher should be excited by this bold agenda to free them from a government system that limits their success.”
Corporations or individuals can contribute to the plan instead of paying their taxes. Those funds would be given to a scholarship program, which in turn issues scholarships to students.
The money can be used to pay for transportation, remedial programs, homeschooling materials or, most commonly, private school tuition.
DeVos wants a $5 billion program, which means that the feds would collect that much less in taxes, with the reduction felt elsewhere or added to the deficit.
DeVos also has argued the system would require no governmental red tape. However, scholarship-granting organizations would need to be vetted and certified.
For Finne and like-minded activists, the Education Freedom initiative works the same way as charter schools: to improve access to better schools for students in poorer neighborhoods.
“I think the idea of giving parents a choice, that’s important,” Finne said. “The purpose of education is to educate every child, and to close off a potential educational provider is shortsighted.”
Finne also noted that tax laws provide deductions for contributions to private colleges at one end of the educational spectrum and to preschools at the other.
“It happens before and after K-12, but not there, where kids need it most,” Finne said.
Trump’s proposal faces an uphill battle. There is virtually no chance that the Democrat-controlled House would approve legislation. Moreover, some conservatives and libertarians fear that the flow of federal dollars to private and parochial schools would open them to all the federal regulations that schools receiving federal funds are required to abide by.
“We know all too well that too many students can’t read or do basic math at the level they should,” Devos’ statement said. “In fact, one in four eighth-graders is functionally illiterate. President Trump is ensuring these forgotten students are forgotten no more.”
The issue has topped DeVos’ agenda since she was confirmed in 2017, yet there is virtually zero chance the Democratic-controlled House would ever consider a tax credit scholarship, effectively tabling the proposal in perpetuity. That’s to say nothing of its unlikely passage in the GOP-controlled Senate, where Republicans like Sens. Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska, and Susan Collins, of Maine, have voiced opposition to the idea. Influential conservative organizations, like the Heritage Foundation, have also come out against the proposal.
To date, though, the tax credit scholarship is backed by about 100 members of Congress.
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