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New bill offers glimpse of how Washington could use federal funding to expand school vouchers

Senator Tim Scott (R-S.C.) chats with Betsy DeVos before her hearing to be next Secretary of Education on Capitol Hill.  (Reuters/Yuri Gripas)
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Sen. Tim Scott, the South Carolina Republican who is one of the most ardent supporters of vouchers and charter schools on Capitol Hill, this week introduced a bill that offers some insight into where and how the new Congress and Trump administration could make good on their promises to push for the expansion of alternatives to traditional public schools.

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Scott’s bill — the Creating Hope and Opportunity for Individuals and Communities through Education Act, or CHOICE Act — is a three-pronged approach to devoting more federal funding to voucher programs for children to attend the private schools and, in some cases, the public schools of their choice.

First, the CHOICE Act would give states start-up funds to begin such programs for students with disabilities, and also would allow states to voucherize federal funds authorized under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, allowing students with disabilities to take those federal funds to whatever private school they choose to attend.

Second, the act would create a pilot program to offer vouchers to military children who live on Department of Defense bases. The vouchers would be worth up to $8,000 for elementary school and up to $12,000 for secondary school. They could be used at the private or public school of the child’s choice.

Third, the act would expand eligibility for an existing federally funded voucher program, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, by allowing low-income D.C. students who currently attend a private school to qualify.

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Scott introduced the same bill during the last session of Congress, but — unsurprisingly, at a time when President Obama was firmly opposed to vouchers — it went nowhere.

President Trump has pledged to redirect $20 million in federal spending to expanding vouchers and charter schools, and his nominee for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, has spent nearly three decades lobbying to create and expand voucher programs nationwide.

The bill also has the support of key Republicans, including co-sponsors Mitch McConnell (Ky.), the Majority Leader, and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who chairs the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

Scott said Thursday that he is “certainly more optimistic than we were under the previous administration of the CHOICE Act’s chances of becoming law,” noting that he “will continue to work with my colleagues to spread the word about how this bill has the potential to positively impact nearly 6.2 million students across the country.”

Whether or not the CHOICE Act passes, it reflects some of the priorities of conservative legislators and advocates who want to see the federal government champion school choice without forcing it on states in violation of the principles of federalism. Many conservatives see the federal government as having a direct and appropriate role in shaping education in the District of Columbia, in Bureau of Indian Education schools overseen by the Interior Department, and on military bases.