When President Donald Trump pointed out Janiyah Davis and her mother Stephanie at the State of the Union on Tuesday night and announced Janiyah would receive a scholarship, it surprised many in Philadelphia's education circles.
Trump said Janiyah is a Philadelphia fourth-grader who languished for years on waiting lists for a scholarship to attend a better school than her neighborhood public school.
"She loves art and math, but for too long she has been assigned to low-performing schools," Trump said. "Her mom, Stephanie, is a hardworking single mother who tried to apply for a tax credit scholarship."
Thousands of Philadelphia students apply for scholarships each year through state-funded organizations and privately-funded nonprofits, and the waiting lists can be long. School choice, the ability for students at poor-performing public schools to have access to charter or private schools, is one of the most contentious issues in Pennsylvania education.
But Janiyah actually won't be getting her scholarship from one of Pennsylvania's state-funded school choice programs or from any local scholarship groups.
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos will pay for Janiyah's schooling at a private school for a year, according to a department spokeswoman.
The spokeswoman did not clarify how the Davis family was identified by the White House.
"The White House and [Department of Education] worked together to find a very deserving family who had applied for a scholarship and wanted to send their child to a school that best fit their needs," the spokeswoman said in an email. "Secretary DeVos donates her salary each year, and this year, a portion of that donation will cover Janiyah’s entire tuition for a year."
Local education leaders in the school choice did not know how Janiyah and Stephanie Davis ended up at the State of the Union address in Washington D.C.
"I don't even know how [the White House] found her," said Nicole Tell, chief operating officer and senior vice president of development at the Children's Scholarship Fund in Philadelphia, one of the largest scholarship organizations in the region.
Trump announced the scholarship in his speech while touting a $5 billion federal program pushed by DeVos that would give money to states for scholarships. DeVos is a billionaire from Illinois who has long advocated for charter school expansion and private school funding by states and the federal government.
"Janiyah and Stephanie are in the gallery this evening,” Trump said. “But there is more to their story. Janiyah, I am pleased to inform you that your long wait is over. I can proudly announce tonight that an Opportunity Scholarship has become available, it is going to you, and you will soon be heading to the school of your choice."
Pennsylvania is one of 18 states that already operates scholarship programs, and has for nearly two decades. The Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit and Educational Improvement Tax Credit programs allow businesses in Pennsylvania to receive tax deductions for donations made to scholarship organizations, educational institutions and schools. Businesses can receive up to 90% in tax deductions for whatever is donated to organizations and schools.
Students in poor-performing public schools throughout the state apply for lotteries and waiting lists to get into charter schools and scholarship programs.
School choice advocates have called for expansion of the program from roughly $150 million, but supporters of traditional public schools have said the program diverts tax money that could be spent on improving education for all students in Pennsylvania.
Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, vetoed legislation last summer passed by the state Legislature that would have doubled the size of the state’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit program.
“Education is the cornerstone of democracy, and it is my job as the leader of this commonwealth to ensure fairness and accountability in our classrooms,” Wolf said. “House Bill 800 would pour funding into a program that lacks these two critical aspects. We have an accountable public education system in place that is underfunded. I have and I will continue to fight to fully fund Pennsylvania’s public schools.”
Mark Gleason, executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership, which receives private donations and funding through the Educational Improvement Tax Credit program, said Trump's description of Janiyah's scholarship and how the system works in Pennsylvania "kind of conflated it all together."
Gleason, who did not yet know early Wednesday afternoon that Janiyah would receive her scholarship from the U.S. education secretary, said he believed it would likely have come through the Children's Scholarship Fund.
But he presumed that the little girl already had reached the front of the waiting list for that organization's roughly 2,000 annual scholarships.
"It would not be the norm for them to cherry pick someone," Gleason said of the organization, which he said has rules in place for picking students in a fair order. "It could be that she was at the front of the line and the White House said, 'Send her down.'"
Tell, of the Children's Scholarship Fund, confirmed that that was not the case.
Then the U.S. Department of Education said that DeVos would personally pay for Janiyah's fifth grade education.
The department spokeswoman added that Janiyah's mother did not want known where the little girl attended school.
Tell said she wasn't sure what a scholarship paid for by DeVos had to do with state funding for school choice opportunities.
"I don’t know what that has to do with the tax credit programs," Tell said. "Nothing in my mind."