Who Is Melania Trump's Guest Denisha Merriweather?

by Katherine Speller

The guests invited by President Donald Trump and his family for his first joint address will undoubtedly represent major parts of his plans for the next year onward. Thus, it makes sense that one of Melania Trump's guests for the address is Denisha Merriweather, a student who has testified and written in favor of similar programs to the ones Education Secretary Betsy DeVos supports. Considering how controversial a pick DeVos (and remains as a cabinet member), Merriweather is a guest likely meant to bolster Trump's choice.

As Merriweather wrote in an essay for The Hill, she struggled in school when she was young, failing the third grade two times before her godmother placed her in a private school — which she said she was able to pay for using the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, a program that gives tax breaks to corporations who donate money to non-profit organizations that then provide scholarships to religious and private schools. The first in her family to graduate high school and college and to pursue a master's degree, Merriweather says she attributes her success to the program.

"This expanding educational landscape is nothing to be feared. It is not about pitting one school or school type against another," Merriweather wrote. "It's simply about giving parents more options to find the school that works best for their children."

While tax-credit programs like the one in Florida have absolutely given individuals like Merriweather opportunities, they also have their fair share of criticism. Critics of the program find that in addition to redirecting money from public school systems to private schools that aren't always required to participate in standardized testing, the programs don't honor the separation of church and state by supporting nonprofits that only allow tuition to be used at religious schools, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Meanwhile, the National Education Association also adds that moving students from public schools to private schools can also harm school districts because they can't reduce their facility and transportation costs (as they're fixed) based on the students who stay and leave. Other parents and advocates, including many in Georgia back in 2012, criticized the lack of transparency in these kinds of plans as well, arguing that they ultimately work to subsidize private school costs for kids already in private schools.

Steve Suitts of the Southern Education Foundation, an Atlanta-based group told NPR: "What is being done today is, in fact, a backdoor way ... to try to subsidize private schooling," Suitts said. "Not only for kids who are now in the public schools, but for kids who are already in the private schools. It's a backdoor method of a voucher."

Regardless of what Trump says about education during his joint session address, the presence of an outspoken advocate of Tax Credit Scholarship programs suggests this program will be at the fore of his and DeVos' agenda.