WASHINGTON – Two top Republicans unveiled bills on Tuesday that they say would address income inequality by expanding opportunity for low-income students.
Sens. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) and Tim Scott (S.C.) proposed plans to redirect about $35 billion in existing federal education funds to supplement school choice programs in different states.
“This is a real answer to inequality in America: giving more children more opportunity to attend a better school,” Alexander said at the American Enterprise Institute, where he announced the legislation.
Under Alexander’s Scholarship for Kids Act, eligible students would receive an average of $2,100 in annual scholarships that would follow children from low-income families to the school of their choice.
The bill would consolidate dozens of federal programs that make up 41 percent of all federal education spending. The scholarships would be paid for by redirecting money spent on these programs.
Alexander’s legislation would allow states to decide whether to give these families the money as individual scholarships to pay for private schools, attend a public school outside of the child’s home district, or go to a charter school. Parents could also use the money to cover the cost of tutoring services or home-schooling materials.
States would not have to report whether schools are succeeding or failing, or follow federal strategies to improve their weakest schools. They could also opt out of the program altogether and still receive the same amount of federal funding.
“Equal opportunity in America should be that everyone has the same starting line as much as possible,” Alexander said.
Scott’s CHOICE Act would allow $11 billion the federal government now spends through the program for children with disabilities to follow those 6 million children to a school of their parents’ choice.
The bill would create a five-year, $10 million pilot program to offer military families scholarships of up to $12,000 for use at public or private schools.
In a 2012 assessment by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 15 year olds in the U.S. placed 25th out of 30 countries in math performance and 21st in science performance.
“I believe one reason for this is that while more than 93 percent of federal dollars spent for higher education follow students to colleges of their choice, federal dollars do not automatically follow K-12 students to schools of their choice,” Alexander said. “Instead, money is sent directly to schools. Local government monopolies run most schools and tell most students which school to attend. There is little choice and no K-12 marketplace as there is in higher education.”
Critics of school choice, including many Democrats and teachers unions, say pouring tax dollars into private hands undermines the schools that are already struggling to improve.
Republicans have long favored using federal money for private school vouchers and other education alternatives.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) has introduced similar legislation and embarked upon a tour around the country last year to highlight school choice programs as a way to fight poverty. Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) supports vouchers and charter schools, and has called school choice the “civil rights issue of our day.”
During the 2012 presidential campaign, the GOP nominee, Mitt Romney, proposed a program similar to Alexander’s.
While the president’s State of the Union address focused on a different view about economic mobility, Republicans should welcome a debate about inequality in America, Alexander said.
“My hope is that our agenda will be to liberate the free enterprise system, to create more jobs with good wages instead of minimum wages, to create more job training, instead of perpetual compensation for unemployment, and to give parents more choices of a better school for their child so the child can get an even better job,” Alexander said.
Sixteen states have begun a variety of programs that allow families to use state taxpayer funds to educate their children in any way they want, whether it be in public or private schools, at home or online.
The only federally funded scholarship program in the nation is the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship, created by Congress in 2004. Scott’s bill would expand the number of students receiving aid under the program.
“The average per pupil cost here in D.C. is around $21,000, and for less than $9,000 the D.C. Opportunity Program has done a better job of providing a better education,” Scott said. “Here’s an opportunity for us to get a better outcome for fewer dollars.”
The Obama administration supports charter schools but opposes vouchers, saying taxpayer money should not be used for private schools. The president’s 2014 budget request failed to include the program, but Congress reauthorized it anyway.