As a fifth grader, Hera Varmah struggled with English. One of 12 children of immigrant parents, it made her question her own intelligence.
“Growing up, I never thought I was smart,” she said. “I could never think of a future for myself. School choice changed that.”
Thanks to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, Varmah was able to attend middle school at Academy Prep Center of Tampa and graduate from Tampa Catholic High School.
The Florida A&M University graduate shared her success story Wednesday as one of five witnesses invited to testify before the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee to discuss potential education proposals, including a federal tax credit that could support donations to K-12 scholarship programs.
“When people say school choice doesn’t work, I simply show them my family,” said Varmah, who now serves as communications and events assistant at the American Federation for Children. She said nine of 12 children in her family have benefited from the program.
“I work every day to ensure that other students across our great nation can access the same chances I did, and Congress should act to expand this freedom as much as possible,” she said.
The Educational Choice for Children Act has been under consideration for years but never passed. This year, it was re-introduced in the House by Reps. Adrian Smith, R-Nebraska, and Burgess Owens, R-Utah. Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana, and Tim Scott, R-South Carolina are co-sponsoring the bill on the Senate side.
The legislation would establish a non-refundable 100% federal tax credit for individual and corporate donations of up to $10 billion annually that would go to nonprofit scholarship granting organizations in each state to award as school choice scholarships for students in lower and middle-income families. Each state’s nonprofit would decide what the grants would cover.
“There is no role for the U.S. Department of Education and no new federal spending nor mandates on states and school districts,” according to Invest in Education Coalition, a national advocacy group backing the bill.
Supporters say the legislation would extend school choice to families who live in states that don’t offer scholarship programs or where programs are less robust. For states such as Florida and Arizona, the legislation would strengthen their existing programs and could help enhance the support they provide to lower-income families.
According to the coalition, the legislation so far has garnered support from 27 Senate co-sponsors and 128 House co-sponsors, the most congressional support ever, and comprises a majority of Republican members in each house of Congress.
Democrats on the committee criticized the legislation, saying it would drain support from district-run schools.
“This legislation before us…would make things even worse,” said Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Texas Democrat whose district includes Austin, where Democrats and rural Republicans are continuing to block a school choice program in a special session called by Gov. Greg Abbott. Doggett called the federal bill “a companion” to the effort in his state to enact school choice and noted that the state ranks 44th in per-student spending, which is $4,000 below the national average, and that average teacher pay in Texas has dropped $7,000 below the national average.
“What we need are more Republicans and Democrats working together to strengthen public education, not destroy it,” he said.
Other committee members said school choice allows more people to escape struggling schools and achieve the American dream, like Varmah and her siblings.
Smith, the bill sponsor from Nebraska, cited falling test scores among the reasons parents should have the right to multiple educational options.
“We know Democrats will trot out tired talking points about how this is a smoke screen for helping the wealthy,” he said. “I would ask my Democrat colleagues: Why would we deny families a shot at a better life? A generation of children are facing a bleaker future because of the school they attend. I look forward to finding solutions that put parents in charge of their kids’ future.”