He is also newly focused on school choice policies, which let families use tax dollars for private school tuition. Aides see both as political winners with suburban women and, in the case of school choice, black voters, too.
On reopening, the White House pressure and pleas are being ignored by school districts across the country who worry about surging coronavirus cases and the need to protect teachers and staff, as well as children and their families. Even in Trump-supporting counties, officials have continued to announce plans for remote education into the fall.
On Thursday, Trump acknowledged that reality, saying that “in cities or states that are current hot spots . . . districts may need to delay reopening for a few weeks, that’s possible.”
Now the White House is pushing Congress to tie tens of billions of dollars in new federal aid to whether schools restart in-person education, even as cases of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, climb. Trump also wants 10 percent of new K-12 spending set aside for private schools, including tax credits that would support private tuition scholarships, a form of vouchers.
Senate Republicans are proposing $70 billion for K-12 schools as part of the larger pandemic relief package, and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said half of that would be reserved for schools that are “going back to a traditional school setting” as opposed to only distance learning. He said that’s because operating in person creates new expenses.
For private schools, Republicans plan to set aside the 10 percent Trump wants, but they are not planning to include his tax credit plan. Rather, lawmakers are considering direct payments to private schools, or funneling dollars through scholarship funds, which help families pay private school tuition, a GOP Senate aide said. The aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly, said these two options will be presented to Democrats, who could pick.
Beyond funding, the White House is looking for other ways to pressure schools to reopen. For weeks, Trump has promised new guidance would be issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which he thinks has been too “tough.”
On Thursday the CDC released several new documents that emphasize the benefits of school, in line with Trump’s messaging. Some of the guidance was written by White House officials rather than experts at the CDC, people familiar with the process said. The new guidelines for school administrators mention precautions outlined in previous documents but appear to drop specific reference to keeping students six feet apart — something many schools find almost impossible to do if they are fully reopened.
Trump is also holding phone calls with administration officials examining what, if anything, the White House can do to force schools to reopen, officials said.
Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden has taken a more nuanced tack. Last week, he released a plan that urged caution, saying that each school district should make decisions based on local conditions and that schools in areas with high infection rates should not reopen too soon.
“Donald Trump’s disastrous mismanagement of the coronavirus response is the top roadblock stopping schools from reopening,” said Biden spokesman Andrew Bates.
White House spokesman Judd Deere said: “If Disney World can be open, so can our schools.”
Politically, Trump’s gamble is that voters are more eager for their children to return to classrooms than fearful of the virus. Mercedes Schlapp, a top campaign adviser to Trump, put it this way at an online event aimed at women: “The suburban mom will say, ‘I am going to stick with President Trump on this one because he wants to make sure my kid gets back to school.’ ”
But the polling suggests that is a tough sell.
A Kaiser Family Foundation Health Tracking poll released Thursday found 6 in 10 parents with children in schools said it is better to open schools later to minimize infection risks, even if students miss out on academics and social services and some parents will not be able to work. About half that — 34 percent — said the reverse. A recent Quinnipiac University survey found voters disapproved of Trump’s handling of school reopenings by a margin of more than 2 to 1. Voters also said, again by a 2-to-1 ratio, that it was unsafe to send students to elementary, middle and high schools in the fall.
Republican allies have showed polling like this to Trump, warning him that pushing for full reopening will not be popular. Nonetheless, the White House is pushing forward, as Trump argues that reopening schools will eventually be widely popular.
“The president sees it as a metric of success that we are getting back to normal,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share internal discussions.
Trump is also showing new interest in school choice policies that allow families to direct tax dollars to private school tuition.
Trump rarely spoke about the issue during his first three years in office. But he devoted significant time to the issue in his 2020 State of the Union address, highlighting a black girl in the audience who he said would benefit from a scholarship.
He also proposed a $5 billion tax credit, which would reimburse donations to state-based scholarship funds. The scholarships are awarded to help pay educational expenses such as private school tuition. The idea has gone nowhere in Congress.
Now, as Election Day draws closer, advisers including Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, see it as a winner with suburban woman, particularly mothers, who have defected to Democrats in large numbers. They also think it has the potential to peel off Latino and particularly black voters, who overwhelmingly support Biden.
“There is nothing that the African American community wants more than school choice,” Trump said last week in the Rose Garden.
Public polling does not typically find education among top voter concerns. In a recent Washington Post-Ipsos poll, 92 percent of black people cited “racism” and 93 percent cited “police treatment of black Americans” as important issues for choosing a presidential candidate, outpacing the share who cited the economy, health care and immigration.
The same poll found 87 percent of black respondents believed Trump is “biased against black people,” compared with 17 percent who thought the same about Biden.
Many Republican strategists, however, believe education issues are one of the best routes they have to win over black voters, many of whom are assigned to high-poverty schools that record low test scores. In 2016, Trump won just 8 percent of votes from African Americans. Advisers say that increasing his share even a little could help in certain states.
An Associated Press-NORC poll in December found a small plurality of 42 percent of adults favored tax-funded vouchers to pay for private or religious school tuition. But a majority of black adults backed the idea.
Facebook ads by the campaign targeting Latino, black and female voters — three of the worst polling groups for the Trump coalition — repeatedly ask potential voters to respond to a poll that asks them to “call on Congress to pass school CHOICE legislation.”
A recently restarted Women for Trump bus tour led by Schlapp, which brings female surrogates to key states in a bright pink bus, has repeatedly attacked Biden’s record on education, often with misleading claims.
“School choice benefits the black and Latino communities disproportionately,” Schlapp said in an interview. Trump’s focus on school choice comes as Democrats have retreated from the issue. Not long ago, support for public charter schools, which are publicly funded and privately run, was a common position for centrist Democrats. President Barack Obama backed them, as did Biden, his vice president.
Trump has also repeatedly mentioned school choice when asked for his solutions to systemic racism issues brought to the forefront by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“Frankly, school choice is the civil rights statement of the year,” Trump said in a speech last month on the topic of systemic racism.
A senior Trump campaign official said school choice will be an issue the campaign talks about regularly in states such as Florida, which has a robust school choice program. Several Trump advisers point to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who campaigned in 2018 on the issue of school vouchers. He signed a dramatic expansion of the state’s program for lower-income residents this year, with the support of some black Democrats in the legislature.
About 104,000 students received state vouchers or scholarships in the 2019-2020 school years, two-thirds of them black or Hispanic, a pool of potential swing voters in a state that is historically close in presidential contests. About 13,000 students were on the waiting list for the program.
As a senator, Biden said private school vouchers might help improve public schools, though he does not support them now. During the primary race, Biden stressed his opposition to for-profit charters.
“I am not a charter school fan because it takes away the options available and money for public schools,” he said on a campaign swing through South Carolina in February. The Trump campaign regularly circulates a clip of that comment.
The proposed Democratic platform takes a critical tone toward charter schools. It would ban for-profit charters from receiving federal money, impose quality benchmarks and require charters to undergo a review by their home districts to certify they are serving the neediest students.
Shavar Jeffries, president of Democrats for Education Reform, said national Democrats are “misreading the politics” of the issue, noting support for charters among black voters.
“Black people delivered the nomination” to Biden, he said, citing their support at a key moment of the primary contest. “They are not where some of these white progressives are.”
Even so, he said, black voters are not going to support Trump, citing a bevy of Trump policies and statements that are out of step with the black community. He said he doubts Trump can even match his 8 percent showing from 2016.
“Black people know who he is, so anything he may try to do at this point is too little, too late. The last four years, he’s made clear his policies are not aligned with racial justice, racial equity,” Jeffries said. “I’d be shocked if any meaningful number of black folk vote for him.”