Trump to pitch school vouchers at Orlando Catholic school

President-elect Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos pose for a photo after their meeting at Trump International Golf Club, November 19, 2016 in Bedminster Township, New Jersey.

Drew Angerer, Getty Images

In an effort to highlight his push for school vouchers, President Trump will visit St. Andrew Catholic School in Orlando on Friday to participate in what the White House is calling a “listening session.”

The visit follows up on the president’s nod to education reform in his address to Congress Tuesday, when he labeled education “the civil rights issue of our time.”

“I am calling upon members of both parties to pass an education bill that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth, including millions of African-American and Latino children,” the president said. “These families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious or home school that is right for them.”

St. Andrew seems like a fitting place for the president to pitch vouchers.  The parochial school was dedicated in 1962, and it currently serves students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade in and around the Pine Hills area of Orlando. 2017 tuition at the school is roughly $6,000 per year, per child, according to the school’s website, but a number of the school’s students get their costs defrayed.

According to the Washington Post, of the nearly 350 students at St. Andrew, nearly 300 receive financial assistance under the Florida Tax Credits Scholarship – essentially a voucher program that provides poorer students with subsidies to attend a private school.

Critics say such voucher programs drain funding from the public school system that serves the overwhelming majority of American school children. But proponents of school choice, including Mr. Trump and newly-confirmed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, argue that kids trapped in failing public schools should have the opportunity to obtain a better education elsewhere.

Mr. Trump referenced Florida’s voucher program in his speech Tuesday, highlighting the story of a young woman, Denisha Merriweather, who struggled in public school but thrived after obtaining a scholarship to attend private school.

Kathleen Kiley, the current principal of St. Andrew, has also been an advocate for the Florida Tax Credits Scholarship program. In a 2010 letter to the Orlando Sentinel, Kiley said the program “gives children another educational option their families could not afford on their own.”

“We do not see ourselves as competitors with our public school friends,” she added. “Rather, we believe our school plays a vital role in helping public education reach out to a distressed community. We have seen our most at-risk students blossom, and their families have played a significant role in their education. I know we’re not the only parochial school with such a mission, and legislation that would expand and strengthen the Tax Credit Scholarship would aid these efforts.”

A pair of Republican senators introduced a bill in 2013 that would create a federal tax credit similar to Florida’s scholarship program – a move that could have expanded the use of private school vouchers nationwide. DeVos, in her previous capacity as an education reform advocate, spoke out in favor of that bill when it came up, the Post notes, but the proposal never got out of Congress.

The administration is now eyeing a new push for a nationwide tax credit program to expand school choice – something that could be accomplished as part of a broader tax code overhaul. No concrete cost figure has been offered, but Mr. Trump has in the past suggested levying $20 billion to promote school choice.

It’s likely the president won’t have to look far to find Republican partners for his education agenda in Congress. “Every zip code in this country needs quality education,” Sen. Tim Scott, R-South Carolina, told Face the Nation last December. “If there’s not a quality school in your neighborhood, we should make sure that there is one, whether that’s charter schools or virtual schools or magnet schools or private schools.”