During the over-the-top pageantry that was Tuesday’s State of the Union address, President Trump introduced the country to Janiyah Davis, a young black girl from Philadelphia who became the symbol of the school choice movement overnight. The program allows students to attend a different—better performing—school, including private schools, and the waitlist is long; thousands of students long.
In his address, Trump derided the governor of Pennsylvania for vetoing legislation that would expand school choice allowing more students like Davis, who was on the waiting list of Pennsylvania’s opportunity scholarship program, to access the program. These lists essentially throw students into a lottery system in which only a select few are lucky enough to receive a better education.
It’s a system that Trump decided to play out in real-time. Because Trump, ever gracious, had a surprise in store.
“Janiyah, I have some good news for you, because I am pleased to inform you that your long wait is over,” Trump said. “I can proudly announce tonight that an Opportunity Scholarship has become available, it’s going to you, and you will soon be heading to the school of your choice.”
The cameras panned to Janiyah and her mother, embracing while everyone around them applauded.
What Trump didn’t mention was how Janiyah Davis magically got off the waiting list. The answer is this: Education Secretary Betsy Devos’s checkbook.
USA Today reports that Devos is personally funding the school choice scholarship and will provide money directly to Davis and her mother. They report that Devos will, “have to pay for the girl’s tuition directly, in part, because state law in Pennsylvania caps how much donors can contribute to the opportunity scholarship fund.”
When USA Today contacted the Pennsylvania Department of Education, officials appeared to know nothing of Trump’s grand scholarship giveaway.
Devos’s spokeswoman, Liz Hill, did not confirm how long Devos will actually be funding Davis’s education—and whether any grants will continue after the president’s cameras have stopped rolling.
But the particulars won’t matter, because Trump accomplished what he wanted to accomplish. The optics of the stunt helped Trump frame Democrats as a group blocking the academic success of a young black girl, and mark any refusal to celebrate the stunt as a personal affront to Janiyah Davis. Their unwillingness to salivate over this saccharine display will be used in attack ads in the months ahead, all while public school advocates and teachers unions continue to fight against the siphoning of government funds away from public education and towards bloated charter and voucher programs.
If anything, this elaborate performance revealed exactly what’s wrong with these voucher programs the Republican Party holds so dear. There are countless Janiyah Davises across the country, but one was arbitrarily chosen to receive the coveted prize of a decent education.