WASHINGTON -- The White House plans to ask Congress to earmark money in the next stimulus bill for scholarship programs for private and religious schools, which the administration is promoting as a way to help families affected by COVID-19 pay their children's tuition this fall.
President Donald Trump will ask for a "one-time, emergency appropriation" for a new grant proposal, according to an outline of the plan obtained by McClatchy. The grants would be provided to states to distribute to nonprofit institutions that disburse scholarships to qualified students who want to attend nonpublic schools.
"I have never heard a single, compelling persuasive reason as to why somebody is against Education Freedom Scholarships, opportunity scholarships, school choice, charter schools. And the reason is this: We're trying to give these kids just another opportunity and provide their parents with another option," Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, told McClatchy.
The White House is seeking to have 10% of the amount that Congress approves for state and local educational agencies set aside for the grants. Trump will also seek approval of $5 billion in federal tax credits for businesses and individuals who donate to the scholarship programs.
The Trump administration has been promoting school choice initiatives for weeks as a way to provide educational opportunities to children in underserved communities and get money to help financially struggling private and Catholic schools before the new school year.
Those policies received a boost last week when the Supreme Court ruled that taxpayer-funded scholarships, like the ones that the Trump administration's proposal would fund, can be used at religious schools. The court ruled that any private school that meets the state's educational standards is eligible to receive the scholarship funds.
Eighteen states already have tax-credit scholarship programs, according to the school choice advocacy group EdChoice, including Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Kansas. Funds are awarded to students in those states by nonprofit Scholarship Granting Organizations.
Draft legislation that White House chief of staff Mark Meadows had ordered drawn up, according to the plan outline, would give every state the option of receiving federal funding for the scholarships if they choose to participate in the "Education Freedom Grant" program the Trump administration is proposing.
The proposal stipulates that states with existing tax-credit scholarship programs must give 50% of the grant funds to scholarship organizations within 30 days of receiving them. States that do not have established programs will have 60 days to distribute the money. States that have not distributed the money by March 30, 2021 will have their funding reallocated to states that do participate in the program.
Scholarship organizations will be allowed to spend up to 5% of the grants they receive to market the programs and pay for administrative expenses, the outline says.
The White House is also seeking to create a nonrefundable federal tax credit for taxpayers who voluntarily donate to the scholarship providers.
Alabama Rep. Bradley Byrne and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, both Republicans, introduced legislation in the House and Senate last year that included the Trump administration's tax credit proposal.
Cruz, in a statement to McClatchy, welcomed the administration's new push for the scholarships.
"With so many Americans out of work and families adjusting to distance learning as a result of the pandemic, now more than ever, Congress should work to expand educational opportunities for K-12 students and hardworking men and women," he said.
Byrne, who has been in contact with the White House about the proposal, said the scholarships would help address disparities in minority communities.
"We are presently having an important discussion in America about racial inequality and what we can do about it. Let's start with giving poor and minority parents the same opportunity that wealthier parents have to send their children to a higher quality school than the low performing schools their children are forced to attend simply because of where they live," Byrne said.
Trump, in a Tuesday evening tweet about the Supreme Court ruling, wrote that school choice "is a civil rights issue, and no parent should have to send their child to a failing school."
Vice President Mike Pence at an education roundtable in Wisconsin last week said that the administration was "working on a new program that would make more than $5 billion available across the country" while talking about the proposed federal tax credit for donations to the scholarship programs.
"We really believe school choice is an idea whose time has come," Pence said in his remarks. Parents should be able to choose where their children go to school "regardless of their area code or income," he said.
The White House presented its plan to Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., last month and plans to seek support from Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill. McConnell's office declined to comment.
Democrats argue that public funds should be spent improving public schools and should not be used to subsidize private institutions, including those with religious affiliations.
"The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically impacted state and local government revenue and projected shortfalls will further exacerbate educational inequities around the country. House Democrats will not waste time on proposals that undermine public education," House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott, D-Va., said in a statement to McClatchy.
"We're focused on reversing our chronic underfunding of public education so that all students – regardless of their background – can learn in public schools that are healthy, safe and provide a quality education," he said.
The White House pushed back, saying private and religious schools help relieve crowding and financial pressure at public schools and improve educational opportunities for minority students. The grants would also help families affected by coronavirus-related job losses make their tuition payments, the White House said.
Democrats were unconvinced by the Republican administration's argument that their proposal would help provide minority students with educational opportunities.
Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said her party's priority is helping public schools implement coronavirus prevention measures and paying teachers. She accused Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Trump of using the pandemic to push an ideological school privatization agenda.
"On the anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it's also important to note the pandemic has exacerbated severe racial inequities that have long existed in our education system," Murray said in a statement to McClatchy. "If Republicans have any sincere interest in addressing these inequities, they should show it by working with Democrats to invest in public education and address systemic racism rather than siphoning resources away when they're needed more than ever."
Public school teachers unions also oppose taxpayer funds going to private schools. The American Federation of Teachers said 90% of children in America go to public schools that are struggling to reopen and need federal funding and protective equipment to do so safely.
"The vast majority of minority kids go to public schools, and so when you fix them, when you actually fund them, you actually fix them," AFT President Randi Weingarten said. "This has never been about choices. Most of the time parents pick schools based upon the safety of the school. This is about defunding public education, so that parents will not make the choice for public schools."
She said the White House was using the economic recovery package as a vehicle to push for legislation that will appeal to Trump's base and boost his reelection prospects.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill were largely unaware of the White House proposal prior to McClatchy contacting them this week.
Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Republican on the Senate HELP Committee, said he was unfamiliar with the White House plan to ask Congress to include emergency funding for the scholarships in the next COVID relief bill.
But the Louisiana senator said he is "absolutely" open to funding the scholarships as a way to help unemployed parents pay tuition during the coronavirus crisis and make the decisions that are best for their child.
"Nothing predicts future success as educational achievement. We should do everything we can to preserve access to the education that will foster educational achievement," Cassidy said.
The grant program was one of the White House Opportunity and Revitalization Council's recommendations to the president.
At a June roundtable in Dallas, Trump outlined several proposals to help minority communities and said he would be calling on Congress to enact school choice measures.
"It creates competition. And other schools fight harder because, all of a sudden, they say, 'Wow. We're losing it. We have to fight hard,'" he said at the time.
Trump acknowledged to a group of young Republicans last week in Phoenix, Ariz., that the measures would have difficulty passing in the Democratic-run House of Representatives.
"It's so important. But the Democrats will never ever allow that to happen," he said.
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