Bush Bids to Preserve, Expand School Choice Options for Low-Income Citizens

Published March 1, 2008

In the final State of the Union Address of his presidency, delivered January 28 to a joint session of Congress, President George W. Bush renewed his support for private school choices for children of low-income families, but with some new wrinkles.

Noting faith-based schools “are disappearing at an alarming rate in many of America’s inner cities,” the president announced he would “convene a White House summit aimed at strengthening these lifelines of learning.”

Bush called for a new $300 million “Pell Grants for Kids” program of scholarships to help needy children in failing schools transfer to better-performing public schools in other districts or nearby private or faith-based schools.

Parochial Schools Closing

A White House briefing paper on State of the Union initiatives noted that over the past four decades the population of racial minorities in Catholic schools has increased 250 percent and non-Catholic enrollment has gone up 500 percent–showing these schools are magnets for diverse families seeking alternatives to government schools.

Yet between 1996 and 2004 almost 1,400 inner-city religious schools closed for financial reasons, sending 355,000 students into other institutions. Recently some Catholic leaders have considered converting their financially struggling schools into secular charter schools in order to preserve an alternative for low-income families.

The White House said the summit would be held in the spring and would bring together leaders in education, research, philanthropy, business, and community development to seek ways to help the faith-based schools remain viable. At press time no date had been set.

Pell Grants for Kids

The scholarships proposed by Bush would go to disadvantaged students who attend public schools that have failed to make adequate yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) for five years or longer, or that have graduation rates of less than 60 percent.

By repackaging past voucher/scholarship proposals as Pell Grants for Kids, the Bush administration is calling attention to the fact that the popular Pell Grant program aids needy college students in attending the public, private, or faith-based higher educational institutions of their choice.

“While education reform has been largely absent on the campaign trail during this year’s presidential election, it is an issue that directly impacts low-income families all across America,” said Charles R. Hokanson Jr., president of the Washington, DC-based Advocates for School Choice, in a January 29 statement. “We urge leaders of both parties to come together and take action on the president’s initiatives.”

Kudos, Criticism

In Utah, where a $4 million campaign of teachers union attack ads scuttled a universal voucher program in last November’s election, Parents for Choice in Education (PCE) heartily endorsed the Bush proposal.

“[Bush] recognizes that our current educational system is failing many children across the country, and believes that parents ought to have the opportunity to choose an alternative that meets the needs of their children,” PCE co-chair Robyn Bagley said in a January 29 statement.

The president of the 3.2-million-member National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, criticized Bush for pointing out the similarity between vouchers and Pell grants.

“The president knows that ‘voucher’ is a politically tainted word for parents who want quality public schools, not more government bureaucracy,” said Reg Weaver in a statement released the morning after Bush’s address. “This name game is a last-ditch effort to push a program that will leave public-school students behind. Instead, we need the federal government to provide resources for school priorities, like reducing class sizes and investing in high-quality pre-K.”

Little Chance

Bush’s initiative also drew raspberries from the Cato Institute, a Washington, DC-based libertarian think tank.

“[Even] ignoring the constitutional problems with this idea, it has no chance of passing in the Democratic-led House or Senate,” said Andrew Coulson, director of Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom.

“But if the president really wants to promote parental choice programs around the country, there is one thing he could do: Renounce his support for No Child Left Behind,” Coulson proposed. “The whole idea of NCLB runs directly counter to parental choice–it is based on the discredited notion that central planning can bring about educational excellence.”

Citing recent disappointing scores for U.S. students on international academic assessments, Coulson declared, “NCLB is a proven failure.”

If Bush withdrew his backing of NCLB and called on states to use their newfound freedom to create or expand school choice programs, “it would have a far more dramatic and positive impact on American education than any other action he could take,” Coulson said.

People for the American Way (PFAW), a Washington, DC-based advocacy group that strongly opposes religious groups’ influence, deemed the president’s voucher proposal objectionable not only on educational grounds “but also because, by using taxpayer dollars to fund religious schools, the voucher program would subvert a founding principle of this nation–the separation of church and state.”

PFAW did not explain in its January 29 statement how higher education vouchers–the existing Pell Grants students may use to attend religious colleges–manage to pass constitutional muster.

Robert Holland ([email protected]) is senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute.

For more information …

State of the Union 2008 Initiatives: http://www.whitehouse.gov/stateoftheunion/2008/initiatives