President Donald Trump in Tuesday’s State of the Union address touted a voucher-style plan to provide “opportunity scholarships” aimed at getting 1 million children out of failing public schools and into the private school of their choice.
Trump urged Congress to pass the Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunities Act, legislation that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has been pushing for a year, giving corporations and individuals huge tax breaks for donating money to organizations that provide scholarships to be used at private – including religious – schools.
“No parent should be forced to send their child to a failing government school,” the president said in support of legislation sponsored in the House by Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Alabama) and in the Senate by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).
In a series of tweets Tuesday night, Amanda Tyler of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty described the proposal as an “astounding tax giveaway that results in massive subsidy of private, including religious, education.”
“Public schools are excellent training grounds for living in our religiously diverse country,” said Tyler, head of the religious liberty educational and advocacy group founded in 1936. “We should be investing in these communities and protecting every student’s religious freedom rights.”
The legislation would allow corporations or individuals to donate funds they would otherwise pay as taxes to groups that provide scholarships awarded without discrimination “based in whole or in part on the provider’s religious character or affiliation, including religiously or mission-based policies or practices.”
A similar Montana plan currently under test by the U.S. Supreme Court capped tax credits at $150. The bills before Congress would allow qualified contributions up to 10 percent of the taxpayer’s adjusted gross income for the taxable year.
The National Coalition for Public Education says the proposal would redirect $5 billion per year of federal taxpayer funds, creating “a federally funding private school voucher program” that “undermines public schools.”
“Although President Trump and Secretary DeVos claim it’s not a voucher program and the taxpayer pays nothing, in reality, it’s a shell game,” the coalition of more than 50 education, civic, civil rights and religious organizations devoted to the support of public schools said on its website. “The donor is the middleman, who is paid back 100 percent with your taxpayer dollars. The voucher is entirely paid with government dollars.”
Introducing the proposal last February, Secretary DeVos said every student in America “deserves the opportunity to pursue the education that best meets his or her needs.”
“No student should feel stuck in a school that just isn’t working for them, or feel hopeless because they live on the ‘wrong’ side of town,” she said.
“A quality education is the gateway to the American dream and stable, family-sustaining employment,” Sen. Cruz added.
Rep. Byrne said the model “has succeeded at creating opportunity for students in my home state of Alabama, and I am hopeful through this legislation that we can create similar opportunities for students around the country.”
The Baptist Joint Committee filed a brief in the pending Supreme Court case Espinoza v. Montana Dept. of Revenue arguing that the Constitution does not require states to fund religious activities conducted through religious schools.
“Our constitutional founders and forebears (including Baptists) fought for the disestablishment of religion and ended government funding of religion,” Tyler said last night. “This tax credit scheme threatens that principle.”