Will Paul's School-Choice Focus Win Minority Votes?

WASHINGTON – Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is leading the GOP push for children to have more choices in schooling by increasing competition in the nation’s education system, all the while boosting his party’s appeal among minority groups.

Paul hosted three fellow Republican senators – Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Tim Scott (S.C.) – at a school choice forum Tuesday in an attempt to draw support for these initiatives.

School choice proponents argue that families, rather than the government bureaucracies, should decide how their public education dollars are spent and which schools their children attend, be it public, charter, private, online or at home.

Two of the main school choice systems – voucher and charter school programs – allow public education funds to follow the students to their parents’ school of choice. Voucher programs provide scholarships that let students enroll in private schools, while charter schools are privately run and generally have more autonomy from local school bureaucracy.

The lawmakers discussed charter schools and the voucher program with representatives from some of the most successful public charter schools in D.C. – including D.C. Prep and KIPP D.C. – and other schools that educate low-income students through the D.C. school voucher program created by Congress in 2004.

“I’m a big believer that choice is good for kids, that innovation is good for kids, and that we need to be open-minded because there are a lot of things going on in education around our country for decades that has been to the detriment of our kids,” Paul said.

Paul said students, especially minority and poor children, ought to be able to attend any public school in a community, regardless of their neighborhood. He also said that when there is a choice, people tend to choose the better product.

“In our country, capitalism is competition, it’s choice. We get better products and more of them at a cheaper price because we compete for them. I think we should bring some of that excellence on the marketplace into education,” Paul said.

Kevin Chavous, a national school choice leader, said the real challenge in terms of the traditional education leadership and their steadfast opposition came down to “politics and power.”

Chavous singled out the political influence of educators and administrators at traditional schools as a major barrier for school choice programs. He also blamed the “one-size-fits-all” school system that is used to handling the power of teacher unions.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average high school dropout earns an annual income of $20,241. That is roughly $10,000 less than the typical high school graduate and $36,424 less than someone with a bachelor’s degree.

Unemployment among those without a high school degree was 11 percent in June, while unemployment among high school graduates was 6 percent. The national unemployment rate stood at 7.6 percent.

“A lot of the problems we have are related to education, and a lot of unemployment comes from a lack of education,” Paul said.

Alexander briefly mentioned his proposal to update the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, a federal education law that expired in 2007. The proposed legislation contains a provision allowing individual states to decide whether to let parents use federal Title I dollars, reserved for low-income students, for any charter or public school of their choice. Alexander and Paul teamed up on a budget amendment earlier this year that would have allowed Title I dollars to follow students to the school of their choice, including private schools.