Trump’s Tax Plan And America’s New ‘Scholarship Moms’
by Thomas Carroll, Forbes, March 27, 2017, 11:57 am
President Trump’s speech to Congress early this month highlighted the historic opportunity the new administration has to address tax and our education crisis and provide opportunity to kids across America trapped in under-performing schools. For America’s dealmaker-in-chief, school choice offers the ability to put a legislative package together that deals with all three of these pressing issues simultaneously.
It also would reach and expand his voter coalition in a way that should be tough for this White House to ignore.
Following failed repeal of the Affordable Care Act, attention will quickly turn to a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s tax code. The primary focus is broad reductions in tax rates in exchange for the elimination of assorted preferences and possibly a border adjustability tax.
What largely has been missed is the possibility the Trump Administration will use the tax reform bill to fulfill his campaign promise to adopt a $20 billion school choice plan.
Why would this be addressed in the tax plan? Because the leading option for implementing school choice is the creation of a federal tax credit to encourage charitable donations to nonprofit K-12 scholarship funds across the nation.
Trump highlighted this approach before the joint session and then quickly followed it up with a visit to an Orlando Catholic school, where many of its disadvantaged students are able to attend only because of Florida’s scholarship tax credit program.
This program was adopted in Jeb Bush’s first year as governor of Florida and has grown to become the largest school choice program in the nation.
Following Betsy DeVos’ narrow confirmation as U.S. secretary of education, astute political observers now believe that attaching Trump’s school choice initiative to the tax-reform bill may be the best and quickest way to get the scholarship tax credit through Congress. That’s because the overall tax-reform bill likely will be adopted through reconciliation, a fast-track process only requiring 51 votes in the Senate.
The Florida program has grown from generating $50 million in scholarships at its inception to a half-billion dollars now, serving about 100,000 students annually. In the Catholic Diocese of Orlando, about one-quarter of students in Catholic schools receive scholarships because of the increase in philanthropy triggered by the Florida law.
This program has also caught the attention of Cardinal Timothy Dolan in New York and fellow Catholic school supporters in blue states across the country. If adopted, the tax credit could reverse Catholic school closures in many dioceses across the country.
Interest is intense among parents, religious and private school supporters, school choice enthusiasts, Hispanic and black clergy, business groups and even major labor unions—many of which are key segments of the Trump coalition.
Similar proposals in New York and Illinois have drawn the support of more than 80 major labor unions—suggesting that the issue may break through normal special-interest and partisan lines. That so many labor unions have broken with the teachers unions on an educational issue speaks volumes about the power of the parental choice issue.
New York teachers union boss Michael Mulgrew, for example, faces the challenge of opposing scholarship tax credits while his own parents sent he and his brother to a Catholic school on Staten Island. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo attended Catholic school in Queens; U.S. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi in Baltimore and D.C.; and U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein in San Francisco.
The politics of the issue are obvious. In 2016, Trump already carried important swing states like Florida (a scholarship tax credit state), Ohio (a vouchers and tax credit state), Pennsylvania (a tax credit state), Wisconsin (a voucher state) and Michigan. The adoption of a federal scholarship tax credit could empower a new wave of “scholarship moms” in blue states that could remake the electoral map.
Perhaps these “scholarship moms” will end up replacing soccer moms as the most talked-about new political force in key swing states.
To prevail, Trump needs to do this right. Any bill needs to apply to all 50 states. Using the federal tax code this way also obviates any local opt-out, thereby preventing the teachers unions from blocking school choice from blue-state parents. The federal government needs to keep its nose out of imposing national standards and curricula guidelines on local schools. Perhaps most importantly, the religious liberty of parents and religious schools need to be protected. After all, parental choice is no choice if federal mandates turn private schools into carbon copies of dysfunctional public schools.
Done right, the adoption of a scholarship tax credit seizes the high moral ground and the political upper hand. It should be irresistible to this White House.
Mr. Carroll is president of Invest in Education Foundation.