Denisha Merriweather is a young African-American woman who expects to earn a master’s degree in social work from the University of South Florida this Spring. While impressive, that is not why she has been a recent topic of discussion.
Merriweather is one of six guests President Trump has invited to his joint address to Congress Tuesday night.
Advocates of school choice — including her — say that programs that follow such policies changed her life, saved her from a failing education system, and allowed her to pursue a path toward the education she wanted. Her story, in which Florida’s tax credit scholarship program facilitated her journey from a poor educational situation to being the first in her family to achieve what she has, is central to how Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos will likely approach schools going forward. The president is expected to make that part of his speech, and how he will spend a reported $20 billion on voucher programs and school alternatives.
Merriweather grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., in an impoverished area filled with crime, drugs and lack of opportunities, and worst of all poor schools. She was a failing student herself (she failed third grade twice) until her godmother put her in a private school. Her tuition was paid with the scholarship program, which allows corporations to give to nonprofits which in turn funnel monies to private and faith-based schools as scholarships.
“The atmosphere at my new school was unlike anything I had experienced before. I was expected to make honor roll, and everybody celebrated when, eventually, I did. People believed I could do it, so I started believing it, too. Learning became fun. Knowledge became a gift,” she wrote in an essay for the Tampa Bay Times. “In the end, I became a good kind of statistic…”
It seems her story has a happy ending, but the type of tax credit scholarship program that enabled Merriweather has been the center of controversy and has been fought by teacher’s unions in Florida. The teachers sued, saying it violates the a state constitution prohibiting public funds from going to religious institutions. After a series of court proceedings and appeals all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, the suit was put down, allowing the program to stand.
But this means if the Trump administration policy creates a program similar to Florida’s, it will also probably be met by critics saying that such funds could be put to better use in public schools, and moreover would violate the separation of church and state and that private schools are not as accountable to public scrutiny as public schools are.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 17 states have such programs. Critics say the programs are little more than a “backdoor voucher.”
“The end result is the same — federal tax dollars going to private schools,” said Sasha Pudelski, assistant director for policy and advocacy at the AASA, the School Superintendents Association, told Politico. Others reflect the notion saying that in the long run, money gets diverted from needy public schools and ultimately leaves the students there behind.
“Vouchers in any form divert tax money to private schools or homeschoolers and take it from under-funded public schools, where the vast majority of school children will continue to be educated,” Clay Robison, a spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association told Politico. “When I say underfunded public schools, I am talking specifically about Texas, which spends about $2,700 less per child on education each year than the national average.”
DeVos has been an advocate of school choice and vouchers for years and has been heavily criticized for the outcome of her policies in her home state of Michigan as Republican party chair, and leader of the American Federation for Children and has created programs to use public funds to pay for private schooling through vouchers. Meanwhile, as many as 100 schools in Detroit alone have been shut down since 2005. Across Michigan 38 more are slated for closure.
Merriweather’s story got her an invite to the U.S. Capitol’s House Chamber for the address, and although she has said that she doesn’t lean toward either Democrats or Republicans, she has been an advocate of school choice and a supporter of the types of programs that have benefited her.
“Students in poverty need all the help they can get, and all tax credit scholarships do is offer them another helping hand,” she wrote in her Tampa Bay Times essay. “All across Florida, it’s giving low-income parents the opportunity to find schools that are a better fit for their children. I’m living proof that it works.”
But she is only one case and clearly not the final word on how tax credit scholarship programs will affect millions of other students in public schools across the nation. Many opponents of the programs say it is an overall unfair proposal for students who find themselves in situations similar to Merriweather’s.
“Instead of providing the state’s neediest children attending troubled public schools with new, affordable opportunities for a good education, the law has been carried out, in large part, as a means to publicly finance the attendance of relatively well-to-do students, many of whom are already in private schools,” says a 2011 study by the Southern Education Foundation. “Instead of saving tax funds, each of the private school scholarships financed by Georgia’s tax credits has cost the state government more than twice what it would spend to send a child to public schools.”