President Donald Trump turned a Philadelphia fourth grader into a poster child for the school-choice movement Tuesday when he told the nation that thousands of students were “trapped in failing government schools" and announced that the girl was at last getting a scholarship to attend the school of her choice.
But Janiyah Davis already attends one of the city’s most sought-after charter schools, The Inquirer has learned. In September, months before she was an honored guest at Trump’s State of the Union address, she entered Math, Science and Technology Community Charter School III.
MaST III opened in the fall in a gleaming facility on the site of the former Crown Cork & Seal headquarters in Northeast Philadelphia, part of a charter network so popular that the school received 6,500 applications for 100 seats next year. Like all charters, it’s independently run but funded by taxpayers — meaning that Janiyah and the other 900 students at the school do not pay tuition.
How she landed in the audience during Trump’s prime-time speech Tuesday remains a bit of a mystery even to Janiyah’s mother, Stephanie Davis.
In an interview Friday, Davis, a teacher’s assistant who lives in Northeast Philadelphia, said she received a call several weeks ago from the principal at Janiyah’s former school, Olney Christian School at 425 E. Roosevelt Blvd.
After attending public kindergarten, Janiyah moved to Olney Christian for first through third grades. Tuition there is $5,200 for elementary students. She received a partial scholarship, Davis said, but it was still a struggle to afford. So Janiyah transferred to MaST III after she was accepted there last summer.
The principal at Olney Christian told Davis that someone had contacted her asking about students with financial issues who “may be up for scholarships,” Davis said.
Then she got a call from a man “saying pretty much the same thing that the principal said," and telling Davis to expect a call from the White House.
When a call came from Washington, “I was kind of hesitant to answer. I thought it was a scam,” Davis said. She was told she had an invitation to the White House, but didn’t quite believe it until she received an official email confirming that she and Janiyah were invited to the State of the Union.
Davis said she had no idea she and Janiyah would be named during Trump’s speech. She had been told there was the possibility of her daughter’s receiving a scholarship, but “I never knew that it was going to be this big," she said.
Trump pointed to Janiyah in pushing for expanded school choice — an issue popular with conservatives and advocates who believe all students should have the right to attend a school of their choosing, paid for with government money.
“For too long, countless American children have been trapped in failing government schools,” Trump said.
“To rescue these students,” he said, 18 states had created scholarship programs — ”so popular that tens of thousands of students remain on a waiting list."
“One of those students is Janiyah Davis, a fourth grader from Philadelphia,” Trump said. “Janiyah’s mom, Stephanie, is a single parent. She would do anything to give her daughter a better future.”
When Trump said their names, Davis said she was “really surprised” and “honored.”
She was also surprised that Janiyah was chosen to receive a scholarship.
“I don’t view MaST as a school you want to get out of at all. I view it as a great opportunity,” Davis said.
Davis said she isn’t sure whether Janiyah will stay at MaST, or return to Olney Christian or go to another school. She said she and her daughter are discussing their options.
Asked why Janiyah was selected for a scholarship despite already attending a school in a high-performing charter network, Angela Morabito, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Education, said, "Education freedom is about going to the best school for your child. Even the ‘best’ school, as ranked by statistics and averages, isn’t the best fit for every child. Each of the 50,000 kids waiting for a new opportunity in Pennsylvania has different needs and goals, let alone the millions of students across America stuck in a school that isn’t right for them.”
Both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have taken swipes at Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf this week, saying Wolf harmed Janiyah and students like her with his veto last year of a bill that would have dramatically expanded a state program that awards tax credits to businesses and individuals that donate toward private-school scholarships. Wolf approved a smaller increase to the program as part of last year’s budget.
The president and DeVos back a $5 billion annual federal tax credit program to give families scholarships to pay for the school of their choice or other state-approved education options.
School-choice supporters believe families should have the right to use government money to pay for whatever school they deem appropriate for their children. Supporters of traditional public schools believe such programs harm school districts by diverting resources and students away from them.
J.J. Abbott, Wolf’s spokesperson, said in a statement that “it is unfortunate that the White House chose to distort both Gov. Wolf’s strong education record and the situation at hand. However, given the more than 15,000 false or misleading claims that the president has made while in office, no one can really be surprised by it anymore.”
Davis, who along with Janiyah flew home to Philadelphia on Air Force Two this week, said she supports Trump’s push for school choice, but is “not sure” about the rest of the president’s positions.
For Janiyah, the speech was “a wonderful experience," Davis said. She said her daughter has been “nonchalant about it. … I know she’s happy. I still feel like she’s trying to process it all.”