Denisha Merriweather will be one of President Donald Trump’s guests at his address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday.
With addresses of this kind, the president typically invites guests whose stories help make his case on political issues, and Trump’s administration cites Merriweather as being proof of the success of school vouchers. Meanwhile, Democrats are also bringing guests that support their political views, including Muslims affected by the president’s travel ban and undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children and fear that they or their parents will be deported.
Here’s what you need to know about Denisha Merriweather.
1. She Made Use of Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program
The state of Florida has a program in which income tax credits are given to corporations that contribute money to Scholarship-Funding Organizations. These Scholarship-Funding Organizations (SFOs) in turn give out scholarships to low-income families.
Denisha Merriweather made use of this program. According to an article she wrote for TBO.com, Merriweather was struggling in elementary school, being held back twice by the time she was in fourth grade.
By sixth grade, though, Merriweather was enrolled in a private school in Jacksonville, the Esprit de Corps Center for Learning, with Merriweather’s family paying for her education using a scholarship awarded by an SFO. She says that this new school helped her tremendously.
“The atmosphere at my new school was unlike anything I had experienced before,” she wrote in her article. “I was expected to make honor roll, and everybody celebrated when, eventually, I did. People believed I could do it, so I started believing it, too. Learning became fun. Knowledge became a gift.”
2. She Is Pursuing Her Master’s Degree from the University of South Florida
Denisha Merriweather is now the first member of her family to go to college.
Starting in the fall of 2015, Merriweather begin to pursue her master’s degree in social work at the University of South Florida.
She also earned her bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary social science from the University of West Florida.
3. She Has Argued in Favor of School Choice
Denisha Merriweather was invited to the State of the Union because she, like Donald Trump, is an advocate for school choice.
This is the idea of giving families tax credits that they can use to send their child to a private school of their choice instead of their local public school. Teachers unions are strongly opposed to this idea, arguing that it will hurt the public school system.
Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s education secretary, has built her entire career around promoting the school voucher system, and she has donated millions of dollars to Republican candidates who support that issue. Denisha Merriweather recently wrote an op-ed defending the school voucher system for The 74 Million, an education news website that receives funding from Betsy DeVos.
President Donald Trump has proposed providing $20 billion in federal funds to low-income students, allowing them to attend private schools of their choice.
4. Florida Teachers Unions Fought the Tax Credit Scholarship Program in Court
The Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which Denisha Merriweather benefited from and is an advocate for, is highly controversial among teachers unions in Florida. In fact, in August 2014, a collection of teacher’s unions and organizations sued the state of Florida over the tax credit scholarship program.
According to Step Up for Students, the teachers organizations argued that the program violates a section of the Florida state constitution that states that no money from the public treasury may directly or indirectly aide a church or religious institution; parents often use school vouchers to enroll their children in religious schools. They also argued the program violates a section of the constitution which states that “adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education and for the establishment, maintenance, and operation of institutions of higher learning and other public education programs that the needs of the people may require.”
This lawsuit was dismissed by Leon County Circuit Court Judge George Reynolds in May 2015, with Reynolds saying that the plaintiffs did not have standing to sue.
This decision was appealed to the First District Court of Appeal, but three justices of the court dismissed the suit. Finally, the plaintiffs appealed to the Supreme Court, but in January 2017, the court declined the case, meaning the First District Court of Appeal decision stands and the lawsuit has come to an end.
5. She Says She Isn’t Aligned With Either Political Party
In an article for Redefined, Denisha Merriweather said that she doesn’t line up perfectly with either the Democratic or the Republican party; it’s just that Republicans happen to line up with her on the issue of school choice.
For Redefined, Merriweather interviewed former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who told her that those opposed to school choice seem to be of the belief that low-income families aren’t capable of determining what’s best for their kids.
“The government doesn’t trust people near or at the poverty level,” he said. “For some reason they think they are stupid. They’re just poor.”
Bush shared Merriweather’s story while the lawsuit against the tax credit scholarship program was ongoing. He later said that Merriweather is a friend of his.