GOP measure would promote school ‘choice’ with federal funding


Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), left, will propose far-reaching “choice” legislation Tuesday that would take the $24 billion of federal money spent annually to help educate 11 million students in poverty or with disabilities and convert it into block grants to states. Alexander is shown last year with with Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Republicans are positioning “school choice” — sending public dollars to charter schools, vouchers, virtual schools and other alternatives to traditional public schools — as a way to address income inequality in this election year and connect with low-income, minority voters.

Sens. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), a former education secretary, and Tim Scott (S.C.), one of only two African Americans in the Senate, will propose far-reaching “choice” legislation on Tuesday that would take the $24 billion in federal money spent annually to help educate 11 million students in poverty or with disabilities and convert it into block grants to the states, among other changes.

The federal money, which represents about 12 percent of total education funding, could be used for a wide variety of public, online or private schools — including religious schools. On average, each student would receive about $2,100.

In a departure from the accountability era ushered in by the No Child Left Behind law under President George W. Bush, states would not have to report whether public schools are succeeding or failing, or follow federal strategies to improve their weakest schools.

Public schools would still be required to test students annually in grades 3-8 and once in high school, and report on student achievement by school and categories such as race and poverty.

The idea of using federal money for private school vouchers and other education alternatives has long floated around Republican policy circles, but the recent spurt in charter schools and new voucher programs in states has revived the notion. As midterm elections approach, Republicans are emphasizing an issue they think will be popular with voters.

In the past year, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) has introduced similar legislation and traveled the country to highlight charter schools and voucher programs while Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), a tea party favorite and potential presidential candidate, has pushed vouchers, charters and the idea that students should be able to attend any public school in a community, regardless of neighborhood and property lines.

Critics, including many Democrats, teachers unions and groups such as the National School Boards Association, say “choice” sounds good but can pour tax dollars into private hands with little accountability and uncertain educational outcomes.

“School choice is a well-funded and politically powerful movement seeking to privatize much of American education,” said Thomas J. Gentzel, executive director of the National School Boards Association, which has joined lawsuits challenging vouchers in several states. “We’re not against public charters, and there are some that are well-motivated. . . . But our goal is that public schools be schools of choice. We need to invest and support public schools, not divert money and attention from them to what amounts, in many cases, to experiments.”

Gentzel pointed to charter schools’ mixed record and said there is little evidence that students who attend private schools with vouchers learn more than they would in public schools.

“While the growth of charters has allowed the emergence of some terrific schools, it’s hard to make the case there’s been an explosion of school quality in the 20 years that charters have been around,” said Frederick Hess, a political scientist at the conservative American Enterprise Institute who is moderating a forum Tuesday with Alexander and Scott about their legislative proposals. ”

The notion of sending block grants to states is troubling, said Charles Barone, policy director for Democrats for Education Reform. “What you hear a few years after a block grant is awarded is how many recipients didn’t spend the money wisely,” Barone said. ““The fact is the feds do [targeted education funding] better than the states.”.”

To date, the only federally funded voucher program is the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship, created by Congress in 2004. The government has poured about $152 million into the program, which has helped about 5,000 students pay tuition at private schools in the District. The majority of those students attend Catholic schools, and the vouchers do not cover tuition at many of the city’s elite private schools.

The execution of that voucher program has been rocky, with inadequate safeguards for the millions of dollars in federal funding, insufficient information for parents and a student database that contains incomplete information, according to the Government Accountability Office. A Washington Post investigation last year found that the 52 D.C. private schools approved to participate in the voucher program are subject to few quality controls and offer widely disparate academic experiences.

The Obama administration supports public charter schools but opposes vouchers, saying public money should not be used for private schools. Several Republican-controlled states have embraced vouchers since 2010, propelling forward an idea that had once been moribund.

The vast majority of U.S. students — 90 percent — attend public schools. Of that group, about 5 percent attend charter schools. Public charter schools are financed with tax money but are independently run, and in most cases, their teachers are not unionized.

Republicans are lining up behind school choice for several reasons, Hess said.

The idea fits neatly into the GOP political philosophy and allows lawmakers to say they’re doing something about education without increasing budgets. It also lets the party easily tap into groups that promote school choice at the state and federal level, Hess said.

In fact, this is National School Choice Week, a promotion funded in part by charter school organizations, several right-leaning think tanks and foundations, Democrats for Education Reform, as well as an advocacy group founded by former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle A. Rhee.

Finally, “school choice” allows Republicans to connect with low-income, minority voters, a demographic that abandoned the GOP in droves in 2012, Hess said. Minorities in urban areas want choice, and many like the idea of vouchers, he said. “Even on vouchers, African American and Latino legislators and parents are going to be excited,” Hess said. “It’s a natural opportunity for Republicans.”

While middle-class, suburban voters like the idea of choice for poor urban students, they are less enthusiastic about proposals to foster school choice by eliminating boundary lines, he said. “When you start talking about school boundaries, people who bought a house because of the school system get very nervous and people who don’t have kids are enormously worried about their property values,” he said. “That’s the real stumbling block — trying to convince suburban and middle-class families they should want this.”

Lyndsey Layton has been covering national education since 2011, writing about everything from parent trigger laws to poverty’s impact on education to the shifting politics of school reform.
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