Cantor: School Choice Fight Needed to Counter Plans Like De Blasio's

WASHINGTON – House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said Wednesday that school choice provides the best route out of poverty and hit out at what he sees as concerted efforts to undermine the movement toward education reform in the nation.

Cantor said his goal was for every child in America to have an opportunity to get education through school choice within the next 10 years. He supports a decentralized system where parents can use tax dollars to send their children to a school of their parents’ choosing.

“This is how we’ll begin to close the opportunity gap and produce real results for American students,” Cantor said in a speech at the Brookings Institution.

The speech coincided with the 50th anniversary of Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. Cantor was among several high-profile Republicans, including Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), speaking on Wednesday about economic inequality and how the GOP could do better to fight poverty.

Five decades of efforts by the federal government to improve public education have failed, Cantor said, and students need an exit route from low-quality schools.

Proponents of school choice claim that it increases the quality of education by promoting competition among providers of education services. Many states now allow parents to receive taxpayer-funded vouchers to send their children to other types of educational institutions, such as private, parochial or charter schools.

Supporters of traditional public schools argue that vouchers and charters siphon off money from the public system without necessarily improving performance. In addition, they argue that school choice costs taxpayers, and facilitates segregation and inequality.

Cantor, a long-time supporter of school choice, used the speech to criticize New York City Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio over his plans to rein in public charter schools.

Under Michael Bloomberg’s administration, charter schools were allowed to take buildings vacated through the closing of substandard traditional schools. Charters were also permitted to set up shop in unused space in existing school buildings as part of a policy, known as co-location. Bloomberg’s policy of offering free rent to charter schools proved particularly alluring in New York City’s expensive real estate market. These schools dramatically expanded during Bloomberg’s tenure, growing from 7 to 123 in 12 years.

During his campaign, de Blasio promised to charge rent to the wealthiest charter schools as part of a larger effort to slow the growth of these schools. He said that co-location has created tension in many communities across the city.

“This move could devastate the growth of education opportunity in such a competitive real estate market like New York City. Just think of how many families will have their choices taken away if Mayor De Blasio pursues these policies,” Cantor said.

“Mayor de Blasio should abandon this plan and allow New York’s charter schools to flourish,” he added.

Charter schools did not exist 25 years ago and currently enroll about 5 percent of public school students in the 42 states that allow the formation of charter schools. They are financed with tax dollars but independently run, and in most cases teachers do not belong to a union. They are often managed by nonprofit groups and have more freedom in deciding staffing, scheduling, and curriculum.

At the event, the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy released the results of its third annual Education Choice and Competition Index (ECCI). The ECCI analyses school choice and competition in the nation’s largest school districts and scores them based on a variety of factors. New York City, New Orleans, Houston and Denver top the list of friendliest cities for school choice.

Cantor also backed the District of Columbia’s voucher program and the Louisiana Scholarship Program, a school voucher initiative promoted by Gov. Bobby Jindal that was the subject of a lawsuit by the Justice Department over allegations that it “impedes desegregation.”

Cantor attacked the administration for its attempt to try to close the program and then seeking the right to closely monitor it. He urged U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to visit the program and see it for himself.

President Obama, who has called for the expansion of charter schools, does not support voucher programs. He has repeatedly failed to include D.C.’s voucher program in his annual budget request. Congress has reauthorized the program anyway.

“School choice is under attack in the very places that top this year's rankings,” Cantor said. “It is up to us in this room, and our allies across the nation, to work for and fight for the families and students who will suffer the consequences if school choice is taken away.”

He vowed to push back against those who threaten the “education revolution.”

“Our committees in the House will remain vigilant in their efforts to ensure no one from the government stands in the schoolhouse door between any child and a good education,” Cantor said.