Rand Paul wants more school choice for poor, minority students


Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. speaks with reporters in Louisville, Ky. July 22, 2013. (Timothy D. Easley/AP)

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) wants children — especially minority and poor children — to have more choices in education.

He wants more public charter schools. He wants more vouchers, so that students can use tax money to enroll in private schools. He says students ought to be able to attend any public school in a community, regardless of their neighborhood and property lines.

“I’m talking about opening up all of the lines, so that kids can go to public, to private, wherever,” said Paul, a tea party favorite and potential 2016 presidential candidate. “Some of these schools are absolutely pitiful, absolutely. What I’m really proposing is helping these kids get out from the grind.”

President Obama and Democrats oppose vouchers, saying that public money should not be used for private schools.

“The president has the money to [send his two daughters] to Sidwell Friends,” Paul said in an interview last week, referring to the prestigious private school in the District. “It’s unfair to tell a poor inner-city kid that he can’t choose to go to a suburban school. Preferably, the more choices, the better.”

Paul is scheduled to host four fellow Republican senators — Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Mike Lee (Utah), Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Tim Scott (S.C.) — at a school choice forum Tuesday to try to draw support for GOP legislation to update No Child Left Behind, a federal education law that expired in 2007.

The lawmakers plan to discuss charters and vouchers with representatives from some high-performing public charter schools in D.C. — including D.C. Prep, KIPP D.C. and Washington Latin — as well as several Catholic schools that educate poor students through the D.C. school voucher program Congress created.

It is the latest in a string of appearances Paul has been making to promote alternatives to traditional public schools. On Monday, Paul and Alexander visited a KIPP public charter school in Nashville. In June, Paul delivered the commencement address at a Philadelphia charter school.

The school appearances fit into a larger effort Paul has been making to win over minority voters, who overwhelmingly chose Obama in 2012. He has been arguing that the criminal justice system unfairly punishes African Americans more harshly for marijuana possession, and that public education is harmful to minority students.

“The people being hurt aren’t the rich white kids in the suburbs,” said Paul, who sends his two teenage sons to a traditional public school. “It’s poor black and brown kids in the inner city.”

Paul shrugged off findings by The Washington Post about quality and oversight problems at some of the 52 private schools where D.C. parents have enrolled their children at a cost of $133 million to the federal government since 2004. The schools are not required to publicly report student performance, and some have questionable curricula and inadequate facilities.

Parents participating in the voucher program should be allowed to send their children to the private schools of their choice, Paul said.

“They’re not using government money,” he said, referring to the tax dollars funneled to vouchers. “It’s our money. We’re getting back some of the money taken from us. I think when you have choice, people choose the better product. I think it’s presumptuous of anyone to question parental authority.”

Paul dismissed new research by Stanford University experts, who found that the nation’s charter schools are growing more effective but that most don’t produce better academic results when compared with traditional public schools. Charter schools are public schools that are privately run, independent from local school bureaucracy. They are often not unionized.

“There’s lies and lies and statistics they say,” Paul said. “People can manipulate statistics all they want. Have you seen the movie ‘Waiting for Superman’?” he asked, referring to a 2010 documentary that was critical of U.S. public education. “I was really moved by ‘Waiting for Superman’. You see the kids and you see their faces. Statistics are one thing, but I think these stories are really powerful.”

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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