Alexander proposes federally-funded school vouchers

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander has introduced legislation that would give 11 million children from low-income families federal money to spend on any kind of schooling their parents choose, as long as it is in an accredited institution.

From the New York Times:
Although the bill is likely to face strong opposition from the Democratic majority in the Senate, it is another sign that Republicans are staking out school choice as a significant rallying point in an election year and promoting it on the day President Obama delivers his State of the Union address. Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the majority leader, has spoken out repeatedly about his support for vouchers and an expansion of charter schools.

“We have a problem with federal funds today that are supposed to be going to low-income families,” Mr. Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, said in a telephone interview. “The simplest way for them to get there is just to pin them to the blouse or shirt of a child and let it follow the child to the school they attend.”

Mr. Alexander’s bill would take about $24 billion — or about 41 percent — of current federal spending on elementary and secondary public schools, and allow states to decide whether to give the lowest-income families the money as individual scholarships to pay for private school tuition, or to attend a public school outside the child’s traditional neighborhood zone, or a charter school.

For each eligible child, based on family income, an average of about $2,100 in federal money would be allocated.

About a third of states have already taken steps to redefine public education with a network of vouchers and scholarships that allow families to use state taxpayer funds to educate their children however they want, whether it be in public, charter, private or religious schools, online or at home.

Under Mr. Alexander’s bill, states would be allowed to opt in to the voucher program. States could also continue to distribute federal funds to public schools rather than individual students.

Republicans have long favored voucherlike proposals. During the 2012 presidential campaign, the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, proposed a program similar to Senator Alexander’s.

Note: The Alexander news release is below

News release from Sen. Lamar Alexander’s office:
WASHINGTON, Jan. 28 – U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) today introduced legislation that would allow states to create $2,100 scholarships out of existing federal education dollars to follow 11 million low-income children to any public or private school of their parents’ choice.

The Scholarships for Kids Act would redirect $24 billion, or 41 percent of the dollars now directly spent on federal K-12 education programs. Alexander unveiled the proposal during a speech at the American Enterprise Institute alongside Senator Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who has introduced legislation that would create similar scholarships for children with disabilities.

Alexander served as education secretary to President George H.W. Bush and is the lead Republican on the Senate education committee.

Below are the senator’s full remarks:

Today I am introducing legislation that would allow $2,100 federal scholarships to follow 11 million low-income children to any public or private accredited school of their parents’ choice.

This is a real answer to inequality in America: giving more children more opportunity to attend a better school.

The “Scholarships for Kids Act” will cost $24 billion a year—paid for by redirecting 41 percent of the dollars now directly spent on federal K-12 education programs. Often these dollars are diverted to wealthier schools. “Scholarships for Kids” would benefit only children of families that fit the federal definition of poverty, which is about one-fifth of all school children.

Allowing federal dollars to follow students has been a successful strategy in American education for 70 years. Last year, $33 billion in federal Pell grants and $106 billion in loans followed students to public and private colleges. Since the GI Bill began in 1944, these vouchers have helped create a marketplace of 6,000 autonomous higher education institutions – the best in the world.

Our elementary and secondary education system is not the best in the world. U.S. 15-year olds rank 28th in science and 36th in math. 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.

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.

Former Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin often wrote that American creativity has flourished during “fertile verges,” times when citizens became more self-aware and creative. In his book Breakout, Newt Gingrich argues that society is on the edge of such an era and cites computer handbook writer Tim O’Reilly’s suggestion for how the Internet could transform government.

“The best way for government to operate,” O’Reilly says, “is to figure out what kinds of things are enablers of society and make investments in those things. The same way that Apple figured out, ‘If we turn the iPhone into a platform, outside developers will bring hundreds of thousands of applications to the table.’ ”

Already 16 states have begun a variety of innovative programs supporting private school choice. Private organizations supplement these efforts. Allowing $2,100 federal scholarships to follow 11 million children would enable other school choice innovations, in the same way that developers rushed to provide applications for the iPhone platform.

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) has proposed the CHOICE Act, allowing 11 billion other dollars the federal government now spends through the program for children with disabilities to follow those 6 million children to the schools their parents believe provide the best services.

A student who is both low income and has a disability would benefit under both programs. Especially when taken together with Sen. Scott’s proposal, “Scholarships for Kids” constitutes the most ambitious proposal ever to use existing federal dollars to enable states to expand school choice.

Under “Scholarships for Kids,” states still would govern pupil assignment, deciding, for example, whether parents could choose private schools. Schools chosen would have to be accredited. Federal civil rights rules would apply. The proposal does not affect school lunches. So that Congress can assess the effectiveness of this new tool for innovation, there is an independent evaluation after five years.

In the late 1960s, Ted Sizer, then Harvard University’s education dean, suggested a $5,000 scholarship in his “Poor Children’s Bill of Rights.” In 1992, when I was U.S. education secretary, President George H.W. Bush proposed a “GI Bill for Kids,” a half-billion-federal-dollar pilot program for states creating school choice opportunities. Yet, despite its success in higher education, voucher remains a bad word among most of the K-12 educational establishment and the idea has not spread widely.

Equal opportunity in America should mean that everyone has the same starting line. During this week celebrating school choice, there would be no better way to help children move up from the back of the line than by allowing states to use federal dollars to create 11 million new opportunities to choose a better school.