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Who is really fighting for the forgotten child?

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While the nation’s capital and the media in Washington and New York obsessed over impeachment, on Dec. 9 President Trump hosted a roundtable to fight specifically for what he called the “forgotten child.” At the White House education empowerment roundtable, the president promoted a school choice bill that would create a $5 billion annual federal tax credit for businesses and individuals to contribute to scholarships for students in their states. Although the media paid the event no attention, it’s important to highlight the sharp contrast between the roundtable and the policies of Trump’s 2020 Democratic opponents.

Across the country, parents, many of them low-income, are using school choice to educate their children at schools outside their public neighborhood options. Twenty-nine states, and the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico provide some school choice program for students to attend private schools, including tax-credit scholarships, school vouchers, tax deduction and education savings accounts. Many more states (44 and D.C. and Puerto Rico) allow for high-performing charter schools, which are public schools with less red tape than traditional public schools.

Trump’s roundtable highlighted these successes as well as those of particular states. For example, Trump heaped praise on Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis who, less than a year into his tenure, secured legislation to move 14,000 students off wait lists for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

However, despite successful state programs, far too many students are without access to quality schools, which is why President Trump says the Education Freedom Scholarships proposal is necessary. The bill, authored by Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.), would strengthen school choice from a federal level while allowing states to have the flexibility to manage how the scholarships are structured, determine which students are eligible and how the funds could be used.

The demand for school choice is largely a reflection of frustration with the current system. K-12 education in the U.S. ranks 13 in science and 31 in math compared to other Organization for Economic-Cooperation and Development countries. Yet, the U.S. is the second-biggest spender on K-12 schools (after Norway). The recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results found that student reading proficiency declined in 17 states and mathematical proficiency is stagnant. This is why, according to a RealClear Opinion Research poll this month, 70 percent of registered voters favor a federal tax credit scholarship and 68 percent support some form of school choice.  

Although Trump — and apparently many Americans — wants to turn the current education system on its head, the Democratic candidates are fighting to protect the status quo. South Bend, Inc., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have called for closing certain public charter schools. This would devastate impoverished neighborhoods in cities such as Milwaukee and Detroit that have high student enrollment in independent charter schools. All three candidates also have voiced opposition to school vouchers. And former vice president Joe Biden has called for halting federal funding for certain charters.

In contrast to the legislation that Trump supports, the Democratic candidates’ K-12 education plans center on unaffordable, unrealistic funding increases for the traditional K-12 public school system, as explained at a recent Public Education Forum in Pittsburgh. The 2020 Democratic candidates are taking their public school support even further than President Obama did. For example, the Obama administration in 2012 concluded that the Department of Education’s spending of $7 billion on low-performing public schools did not improve America’s education system.

The policies that Democrats support would deny opportunities to students such as Denisha Merriweather, who attended the White House roundtable. Merriweather was a graduate of a school choice program in Jacksonville, Fla. As a public school student, she failed the third grade twice before using Florida’s school choice program to complete her K-12 education.

“Last week, I sat in a room with eight parents and students to discuss the benefit of the Education Freedom Scholarship Proposal,” Merriweather said. “ I am thrilled the president has committed to expanding education freedom for all students. His support of school choice is critical to improving urban education.”

Trump has an opening to become the champion for improving urban education, while the 2020 Democrats seek to shut down charter schools and force families to attend low-performing public schools. With over 855,000 families using school choice in the pivotal states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida and Arizona, voters can only hope this is not the last time Trump uses the bully pulpit to advocate for school choice.

CJ Szafir is executive vice president at Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. He was appointed by former Gov. Scott Walker to the Wisconsin Council on Mental Health. Follow him on Twitter @CJSzafir.

Libby Sobic is director and legal counsel of education policy at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. She works on legal and policy issues related to K-12 education in Wisconsin.

Tags Alternative education Bernie Sanders Charter school Donald Trump Education Education policy Elizabeth Warren Joe Biden Pete Buttigieg School choice

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