Tonight’s looking like the night US president Donald Trump finally reveals his plans for American education.
Trump will give his first address to a joint session of Congress at 9pm EST, and the White House has announced six individuals as official guests who will sit with first lady Melania Trump during the speech. One of the invitees—who historically represent policy initiatives the administration wants to pursue—is Denisha Merriweather, a woman who claims her life was turned around when she left public school for private school with financial help from Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program.
Up till now, the Trump administration has been subdued on education policy, choosing to dive with full might into other matters like immigration. That’s suddenly changing. Merriweather, the first in her family to graduate high school and college, isn’t just a private school success story; she’s also a vocal advocate of tax-credit scholarships. Florida’s program offers corporations tax breaks for donating to nonprofits that in turn give the money out in scholarships to private and religious schools.
In essence: School choice.
It’s no secret that newly confirmed education secretary Betsy DeVos supports school choice, the controversial movement to have federal money follow students around to schools whether they’re public or not. DeVos and her husband have pumped millions into charter schools in Michigan, and all four of the couple’s children have been educated at private schools.
This week, DeVos even praised America’s historically black colleges and universities for being “real pioneers when it comes to school choice” (a somewhat bizarre comment to make, as it both ignores the history of discrimination that necessitated those institutions, and conflates primary and secondary schools with higher education). But Trump himself hasn’t said much about school choice.
Merriweather’s presence at his speech tonight implies he’s now putting it front and center—and the president may actually make good on his vague campaign promise to spend $20 million for parents to send their kids to schools of their choice. Supporters cheer the idea for potentially broadening educational access for poor families; critics say school choice policies will cripple the US’s existing education system by draining talented students out of public schools. There are currently 16 other US tax-credit programs like Florida’s.
The other five invitees to Trump’s speech tonight are Maureen McCarthy Scalia (widow of the late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia), Jamiel Shaw Sr. (the father of a man shot by an illegal immigrant in 2008), Jessica Davis and Susan Oliver (widows of California police officers killed by an illegal immigrant in 2015), and Megan Crowley (daughter of a pharmaceutical entrepreneur).