In speech at Brookings Institution, outlines what federal government can do to help states support school choice for parents
Posted on February 4, 2015
“If we trust parents to choose child care for their children, and we trust them to help their children choose a college to attend—and both those systems have been so successful – why do we not also trust them to choose the best elementary or high school for their children?”
WASHINGTON, D.C., Feb. 4 – In a speech at the Brookings Institution today, Senate education committee Chairman U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) questioned why popular and successful federal programs support parents choosing child care and colleges for their children, but it is still “so hard to apply the same sorts of choices to elementary and secondary schools.”
“Allowing students to choose among schools is not a new idea for the federal government. Allowing federal dollars to follow students has been a successful strategy in American education for 70 years. In 1944, the G.I. Bill allowed veterans to choose among colleges, public or private.
Today, about $136 billion in federal grants and loans continue to follow students to the college or university of their choice.”
Alexander detailed four ways the federal government can help allow parents to choose their child’s school: Alexander’s bill, Scholarships for Kids, to allow states to let 24 billion in existing federal dollars follow the low income child to the public or private school they chose to attend; the Choice Act, by Senator Tim Scott (R-S.C.), to allow federal dollars for disabled students to follow those children to the schools their parents believe provide the best services; expansion of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program; and expansion of charter schools.
The text of the senator’s speech follows:
I am delighted to be here, but I should warn you: Based on my track record, I’m probably not your most reliable observer on school choice.
If I take you back to September 1992, I gave a speech at Ashland University in Ohio and I predicted that by the year 2000 “school choice will not be an issue.”
I suggested that an Ashland student writing a thesis in 2000 ought to make the subject parental choice of schools, because by then, I said, “it will be a matter of history.
“Your colleagues will wonder along with you as you examine this strange era when we granted government monopolies control of the most valuable and important enterprises in town, and so many people fought furiously to keep doors to many of the best schools closed to poor children.
“They will ask, how could this have ever happened in America, at a time when the ideas of freedom, choice and opportunity were sweeping the rest of the world?”
My prediction might not have been right, but not because we didn’t try.
In 1984, I gave a speech at the University of the South outlining the “deep ruts” into which American K-12 education had fallen. One of those was the lack of school choice for parents.
In 1985, the National Governors Association (NGA) embarked on a project called “Time for Results.” We divided into seven task forces, each chaired by a governor, to ask seven of the toughest questions you could ask about American education. One of those questions was, “Why not let parents choose the schools their children attend?” The task force working on that question was chaired by the Democratic governor of Colorado, Richard Lamm, who said then: "You know, it is interesting that America is a land of choices. We have 100 breakfast cereals to choose from, 200 different makes of cars. But in this one educational area...we have not done a lot in choice.”
Then in 1992, President Bush proposed his “GI Bill for Children,” which was a plan to allow states and cities to give $1,000 annual scholarships in new federal dollars to each child of a middle- and low-income family in a participating state or locality.
Families could spend the scholarships at any lawfully operated school – public, private or religious.
And up to half of the scholarship could be spent on other academic programs, like a Saturday math tutoring program or a summer accelerated language course.
That year, the Carnegie Foundation had reported that 28 percent of our nation’s parents would like to send their child to a different school.
Today, that number is even higher – it is, in fact, more than twice as high. A recent  Luntz Global study found that 64 percent of parents said that “if given the financial opportunity,” they would send one or all of their children to a different school.
The last 23 years have seen some positive changes in the ability of parents to choose their children’s schools.
Today all 50 states and Washington, D.C. offer to some students alternatives to the school they would normally be assigned based on their residence.
Approximately 15 percent of school-age children attend a school other than their school of residence through open-enrollment programs.
Policies in 42 states allow some, or all, parents to send their children to public schools outside their districts.
Of those 42 states—15 states require districts to participate, 23 allow them to participate, and 3 require it specifically for low-income students and students in failing schools.
In 31 states, parents are allowed to choose among schools within their district.
Of those 31 states—16 states require districts to participate, 10 allow them to participate, and 6 require it for low-income students or students in failing schools 6 states.
More than 2.5 million – or nearly 5% of all public school children – are enrolled in more than 6,000 public charter schools in 42 states and D.C. Typically parents choose to enroll their children in these schools.
In addition, today more than 300,000 children are served by 41 private school choice programs across 19 states, D.C., and Douglas County, Colorado. These programs often give students who meet certain criteria—usually based on income, special needs, or academic performance—an opportunity for a voucher, tax credit program, or education savings account to allow them to attend private schools.
Also, the option for homeschooling is available in all states and parents of about 3 percent of school-age children choose to homeschool.
Allowing students to choose among schools is not a new idea for the federal government.
Allowing federal dollars to follow students has been a successful strategy in American education for 70 years.
In 1944, the G.I. Bill allowed veterans to choose among colleges, public or private.
Today, about $136 billion in federal grants and loans continue to follow students to the college or university of their choice.
Just last year, Congress reauthorized the $2.4 billion Child Care and Development Block Grant program, or CCDBG, which, when combined with other federal and state funding, helps approximately 900,000 families pay for child care of their choice while they work or attend school, mostly through vouchers.
These are among the most successful and popular federal programs—why is it so hard to apply the same sorts of choices to elementary and secondary schools?
What can the federal government do now to expand the opportunity parents have to choose the most appropriate school for their children?
1. Scholarships for Kids: This is a bill I introduced that would use $24 billion of the federal dollars we spend each year on K-12 education and allow states to create $2,100 scholarships to follow 11 million low-income children to any public or private school of their parents’ choice.
Also, the discussion draft I’ve just released to fix No Child Left Behind gives states the option of using $14.5 billion in Title I money to follow 11 million low income children to the public school they attend.
Most people agree that Title I money, which is supposed to help low-income kids, gets diverted to different schools because of a formula that targets money to districts based on how much states spend per student. That is largely influenced by teacher salaries.
The simplest way to solve that problem is to let that money follow the child to the school they attend. You could do that to just public schools, which has been the tradition with Title I money, or to private schools, which is what I would prefer.
2. The CHOICE Act: This is a proposal by Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) to allow about $11 billion the federal government now spends for children with disabilities to follow those 6 million children to the schools their parents believe provide the best services.
I think it’s important to note that these bills do not require states to do anything—instead they give them the option to have money follow the child.
3. The DC Opportunity Scholarship Program: Senator Scott’s CHOICE Act would also expand the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program that began in 2004 and has provided about 6,000 low-income students in Washington, D.C. with the opportunity to receive a scholarship to attend a private school of their parents’ choice. Today, far more parents in the city have applied for the scholarships than have received them.
4. Expanding charter schools: In my final year as education secretary under President George H. W. Bush, I wrote every school superintendent in America asking them to try this new idea from Minnesota called “start-from-scratch schools.” At the time there were only 12 of them. They were the first charter schools. Today there are more than 6,000.
Charter schools have had strong bipartisan support—including from President Clinton and Secretary Duncan.
We’ve got in our discussion draft provisions that would streamline and update the existing Charter Schools Program to:
Provide grants to State entities to start new charter schools and to replicate or expand high-quality charter schools.
Provide grants to entities to enhance credit methods to finance charter school facilities.
Provide grants to charter management organizations, like KIPP or Rocketship in my home state of Tennessee, to replicate or expand high-quality charter schools.
Our goal is to grow the federal investment in expanding and replicating high-quality charter schools with a demonstrated record of success, and hold charter schools accountable for their performance.
Other senators also have some good proposals: Senators Paul and Lee both have bills to allow federal dollars from Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to follow low-income children to the public or private school of their parents’ choice. Senator Rubio has a bill that creates a new federal tax credit for individual and corporate donations to organizations that provide low-income students with private school scholarships.
As for the future, I think I’ve learned my lesson—I’m not about to make a prediction.
It looks like it will be a while before school choice will be a matter of history.
But the progress so many have made is impressive—there is plenty of opportunity to do more.
As Ross Perot told me in 1984, "Changing the public schools of Texas was the hardest, meanest, bloodiest thing I've ever tried to do."
Since I’m not going to make a prediction then I’ll end with a question—the same one I asked in 1992: If we trust parents to choose child care for their children, and we trust them to help their children choose a college to attend—and both those systems have been so successful – why do we not also trust them to choose the best elementary or high school for their children?
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