In State of the Union, Trump distorts Wolf’s veto of school tax credit bill | Fact Check

President Donald Trump (Capital-Star file)

President Donald Trump used a televised address to the nation Tuesday to apparently distort Gov. Tom Wolf’s 2019 veto of a bill that would have nearly doubled the size of a state program that offers tax credits to businesses that donate to K-12 scholarship funds.

During his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, Trump said that “for too long, countless American children have been trapped in failing government schools. To rescue these students, 18 states have created school choice in the form of opportunity scholarships. The programs are so popular that tens of thousands of students remain on a waiting list.”

As an example, he singled out a fourth-grade student from Philadelphia named Janiyah Davis.

“Janiyah’s mom, Stephanie, is a single parent,” Trump said. “She would do anything to get her daughter a better future, but last year, that future was put further out of reach when Pennsylvania’s governor vetoed legislation to expand school choice to 15,000 children. Janiyah and Stephanie are in the gallery. Stephanie, thank you so much for being here with your beautiful daughter.”

But Trump’s account was only partially correct.

As the Capital-Star reported last year, Wolf did veto legislation, sponsored by Pennsylvania House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, that would have expanded the state’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit by $100 million a year.

But in the $34 billion budget bill that Wolf signed into law in June 2019 included a more modest expansion of the scholarship program. It raised the cap on EITC tax breaks from $160 million to $185 million, WHYY-FM in Philadelphia reported last June.

During his speech, Trump said he was “proudly announc[ing] tonight that an opportunity scholarship is going to [Janiyah Davis] and you will soon be headed to the school of your choice.”

It was not immediately clear to which scholarship fund Trump was referring, nor which school Davis would be attending.

Trump followed that announcement up by calling on Congress to “give one million American children the same opportunity Janiyah has just received. Pass the Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunities Act, because no parent should be forced to send their child to a failing government school.”

In a statement released after Trump’s speech, U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., credited Trump for his focus on school choice, saying the Republican was “right to discuss the need to expand” it.

“Every child in our country deserves a high-quality education, regardless of zip code or income level. Right now, the school choice movement is facing unprecedented opposition in Pennsylvania,” Toomey said. “I’m glad Stephanie and Janiyah Davis from Philadelphia were in the chamber tonight to put a face to the problems facing Pennsylvania families who want to escape failing schools.”

The Wolf administration could not immediately be reached for comment for this story.

Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to travel to suburban Harrisburg on Wednesday, where he’s scheduled to appear with senior White House aide Kellyanne Conway and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who is a vocal proponent of school choice.

The Department of Education confirmed Wednesday that DeVos will donate her salary in order to cover Davis’ scholarship.

A department spokesperson told the Philadelphia Inquirer that DeVos donates her salary to various charitable organizations each year.

Devos and her husband, former Amway CEO Dick DeVos, have an estimated net worth of $1 billion, the Inquirer reported.

‘More options and opportunities’: At Harrisburg Catholic school, DeVos pushes $5 billion program for private, religious school scholarships

That wasn’t the only time that Pennsylvania, a key 2020 battleground, figured into Trump’s nationally televised address, which came on the eve of his likely acquittal by the U.S. Senate on two articles of impeachment passed by the U.S. House.

Trump also mentioned Pennsylvania’s 18 percent decline in opioids deaths, linking that progress to policies promulgated by his White House.

That claim is partly true. However, the Democratic Wolf administration declared a statewide emergency on opioids in January 2018. The administration extended that declaration, which gives the state more leeway to confront the ongoing public health crisis, for the eighth time in December.

Pennsylvania also got a mention during the Democratic response after the speech, when Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer mentioned a recent expansion of overtime rules in the Keystone State.

Last week, a state regulatory board approved new overtime rules that will allow about 200,000 salaried employees statewide to earn time-and-a-half. 

John L. Micek
A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press