Weekly Column of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander - America’s Opportunity Scholarships for Kids Act

Giving Meaning to the Promise of No Child Left Behind

Posted on July 28, 2006

Earlier this month I introduced the America's Opportunity Scholarships for Kids Act, S. 3682, on behalf of President Bush. I was joined in introducing this legislation by Senators Ensign, Gregg and Santorum, and Representatives McKeon and Johnson introduced a companion bill in the House, H.R. 5822. This bicameral legislation provides meaning to the promise of the No Child Left Behind Act by giving low-income families whose children are stuck in low-performing schools the same opportunities other families already enjoy. President Bush proposed the America's Opportunity Scholarships Program as part of his fiscal year 2007 budget. The bill authorizes $100 million in competitive grants to state and local educational agencies or private nonprofit groups to provide low-income students in low-performing schools with scholarships to attend the school of their choice or receive tutoring. Thousands of eligible students would receive up to $4,000 in scholarship funds to apply to tuition and costs at the school of their choice or up to $3,000 worth of intensive tutoring to help them improve their academic achievement. Eligible low-income students are those who attend schools in “restructuring,” which means they have missed their student achievement goals under No Child Left Behind for 6 years in a row. The U.S. Department of Education reports that in the 2004-2005 school year, 1,065 schools were identified for restructuring. Preliminary estimates suggest that an additional 1,000 schools will be identified for restructuring in the 2005-2006 school year. Parents want the best possible schools for their children. A recent survey by the Educational Testing Service showed that 62 percent of public school parents either transferred a child out of one school into a better school or have decided where to live based on the schools in that district. This bill offers a way out for students whose families don't have the money for tuition or the luxury of moving. For those who think school choice is not important, I ask you to consider what you would do if the government or circumstances said you had no choice in the matter. Imagine what would happen if we passed a law that said that no American parent could choose a school for their child, and instead the government assigned each child to a specific public or private school. There would be a revolution in this country by middle- and upper-income parents who want to preserve their right to choose what is best for their child's education. Low-income parents are increasingly voicing a demand for the same quality educational options that wealthier families have. In Milwaukee, WI, low-income families' demand for better choices led to the creation of a citywide private school choice program in 1990. Today, Milwaukee is one of the most vibrant education marketplaces in the Nation, and parents can choose from traditional public schools, charter schools, and private schools. In Washington, D.C., frustrated low-income parents led an active campaign to establish the D.C. School Choice Incentive Program, which increases educational options for low-income students, including scholarships to attend private schools. Over 2,600 applications were received for 1,200 available scholarships in 2004, the first year of that program. This school year, 1,713 students are enrolled at the private school of their choice. Their parents report significant improvements in their children's academic performance, behavior, and prospects for the future. Our nation gives families choices in educational institutions nearly everywhere but in grade school and high school. After World War II, the GI bill enabled veterans to attend the educational institutions of their choice—public or private, secular or nonsecular. Today, federal dollars for higher education still follow students to the school of their choice. It is this choice—along with autonomy and competition—that has made our system of higher education the best in the world. We also allow federal funding to follow preschoolers to the childcare program of their choice. Unfortunately, we have gotten in a rut with K-12 schools. We have created local monopolies where dollars flow directly to schools with little or no say from parents. The ones paying the highest price are the poor children of America. America's Opportunity Scholarships are a way out for families who have waited too long. I hope my colleagues will support this important legislation so we can help our neediest children achieve a brighter future.