Betsy DeVos Shapes Denisha Merriweather’s Story into a School Choice Triumph
One of the individuals present at Donald Trump’s address of Congress on Tuesday, February 28, 2017, was Denisha Merriweather, a graduate student who years earlier received a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (i.e., voucher) that was delivered by the nonprofit administrator, Step Up for Students. (Merriweather also later worked for Step Up for Students as part of a growing career in advocating for vouchers.)
Denisha Merriweather, who was able to attend a private school when her public school did not meet her needs, exemplifies the hope and positive impact of school choice, and her story should serve as a model for the nation. [Emphasis added.]
According to DeVos, the story is this simple: A public school “did not meet” Merriweather’s “needs.” In a narrative that DeVos finds easy to market, the public school was (and is) the problem.
However, in Merriweather’s own testimony before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce in February 2016, she notes that she did not attend a single public school but was instead changing schools “constantly” as the result of her mother’s frequent moving:
When I was in elementary school in Jacksonville, Florida, my mother and I were moving around town constantly. That meant I kept changing schools, and I had a hard time re-adjusting to a new school, new teachers and new students every time we moved. Because we moved so much, I also missed several days of school, and when I got back into the classroom, it was hard to catch up. Needless to say, my grades were bad, and I didn’t understand most of my schoolwork. I got picked on by other kids because I was doing so poorly in school. And I kept getting into fights. I failed third grade. Not once, but twice. [Emphasis added.]
As Merriweather’s words attest, the underlying problem was not the quality of the public schools but the constant changing of schools that resulted in absences on top of having to frequently readjust to new school environments.
An important change in Merriweather’s life was the stabilization of her home situation, which occurred when she changed caregivers. At this point, in DeVos, voucher-selling fashion, Merriweather also glides right past the importance of a stable living environment and jumps to her enrollment in a voucher school as the solution:
Not too long after that, I started living with my godmother and my life began to turn in an entirely different direction. One of the first things she wanted to change was my school. She heard through our church about a private school in Jacksonville called Esprit de Corps Center for Learning, and liked what she heard. But she had no way to pay for it.
Thankfully, she heard about a scholarship that was offered through a nonprofit I now know as Step Up For Students, and the state program, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. Let me tell you. That was just the change I needed.
Merriweather did not receive voucher money and continue to bounce from school to school the way that she did while living with her mother. The reality that Merriweather’s living situation stabilized is an important yet strategically-discounted factor. Moreover, it is misleading to present Merriweather’s voucher school attendance as a solution for some single public school that she attended as consistently as she did her voucher school, yet DeVos misleads readers into believing such was the case.
In the case of DeVos’ press release, printing the truth about Merriweather’s constant moves pre-voucher and stabilized living situation post-voucher does not sell vouchers as well. The story loses the damning factor needed to condemn public schools.
It is unrealistic to expect any school, public or private, to effectively educate students who live unsettled, transient lives. However, it is realistic to expect that transience is much more likely to get a student booted from a private school than it is from a public school.
Private schools are not required to enroll students at inconvenient times (i.e., mid-year). But public schools are.
Merriweather’s story is less a testament to school choice than it is for the importance of a stable home life. Her story is also a testament to the fact that public schools enroll students throughout the school year, which can be complicated for all involved.
DeVos should write a press release about that. But I won’t count on it.