School choice, hope and the Republican agenda

Travis Pillow
Advocates talk school choice at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

Advocates talk school choice at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

After she accepted a scholarship* to enroll in a private school, Denisha Merriweather changed the course of her life. She wound up becoming the first in her family to finish high school and college. Now a graduate student at the University of South Florida, she said her success has inspired others in her family to go back to school, or pursue a GED, or encourage her younger siblings to do well.

Merriweather has told this story before, including before Congress, and this morning she took her message to Cleveland, where she joined U.S. Rep. Luke Messer, R-Indiana, and Betsy DeVos, the chairwoman of the American Federation for Children, on a panel discussing school choice and innovation at the Republican National Convention.

Messer, who chairs the school choice caucus in Congress, said waves of anger and insecurity are sweeping through American politics, and have animated some supporters of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and erstwhile Democratic contender Bernie Sanders.

“You’re seeing an uprising of everyday people, who somehow in their hearts know that they’re not being well-served by existing institutions,” he said, adding: “To be able to take your shot at the American dream, you have to have access to high-quality education. We are falling far short of that as a nation.”

Messer said stories like Merriweather’s, which spread a sense of hope throughout her family, may serve as an antidote.

He said the nation has a “moral obligation” to make sure all students have a chance to do well. But he counseled caution about the federal government’s role.

“We are not suggesting we create a federal Department of School Choice. That would not be the conservative Republican way to address this problem,” he said.

At the same time, he said, conservatives need to do more than just fight federal involvement in education policy. They need a positive agenda. On that count, he said, there are opportunities for Republicans to promote school choice at the national level. For example, he said, they should support policies like Title I portability, which would give low-income parents more direct control over federal dollars devoted to educating children in poverty.

“A great way to devolve federal power would be to empower parents,” he said.

See a video of the whole panel discussion here.

*Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, helps administer the Florida’s tax credit scholarship program. Merriweather works as a family advocate for Step Up.

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