Choice Gains a Foothold in Education Bill

Published February 1, 2002

The year 2001 brought promising first steps in the direction of changing Washington’s posture toward K-12 education.

Accountability and parental choice gained a foothold as Capitol Hill and the White House reached agreement on reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, first passed under LBJ in 1965.

Shortly after taking office, President George W. Bush introduced his “No Child Left Behind” plan for reforming the ESEA. Prospects quickly dimmed for provisions that established parental choice as a way to hold schools accountable for how effectively they use federal aid.

Congressional leaders insisted on jettisoning Bush’s modest proposal to let families stuck with failing schools for three years use their Title I subsidies to transfer to better private or public schools. To opponents of the plan, that smacked of “vouchers,” a politically demonized word.

Nevertheless, the bill Congress finally sent to the President contains a provision that contemplates public money following a child out of a chronically failing government school to a tutor, private or public, of the family’s choice.

Some advocates have derided this measure as “after-school choice,” instead of the real thing. Nevertheless, it establishes the concept of portability in federal K-12 aid, which could be expanded to include vouchers for paying private tuition, especially if the U.S. Supreme Court upholds the constitutionality of vouchers in the Cleveland case later this year.

Remedial Ed Vouchers

Indeed, Fritz Steiger, president of Children First America, calls the provision in the reauthorized ESEA “the functional equivalent of remedial education vouchers for students.” The measure is found in a section allowing parents to use Title I funds to pay for “supplemental services,” such as tutoring, after-school services, and summer programs of the family’s choosing. Significantly, parents would be able to obtain subsidized help for their children from private, faith-based providers.

New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg, ranking Republican Member of the Senate Education Committee and a leading proponent of portability, saw this measure of choice as “a significant breakthrough [that] represents the first step to providing parents with true choice in the education of their children. Increased supplemental services will have a fundamental impact on the way low-income children are educated in the public school systems.”

The original Bush bill would have allowed vouchers only after testing had documented a school’s chronic failure over a three-year period. Significantly, the House-Senate Education Conference Committee, chaired by Representative John Boehner (R-Ohio) made the supplemental services effective for schools that have already been identified as failing under existing Title I evaluations. That means parents at as many as 3,000 public schools may be able to use $500 to $1,000 per child to purchase tutorial or other extra help as early as the fall of 2002.

Schools on the brink of failure would have to set aside 20 percent of their Title I money for parents to use in selecting supplemental services, should the schools not improve. In addition, the agreement will allow students stuck in dangerous schools, or students who have been the victims of crime, to transfer to a charter school or a regular public school.

Failing Schools Trigger Choice

The new ESEA requires states to test students annually in grades 3-8 in reading and mathematics. States will use tests of their choosing that are linked to their own standards. They must disaggregate results by population subgroups and furnish that information to parents and the general public.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)–which has been a voluntary survey of student knowledge since 1969–will be administered to small samples of students in each state for grades 4 and 8 reading and math every other year as a means of confirming progress reported by the states.

A school failing for two consecutive years to make adequate progress would be required to offer public school choice, including transportation. Failure for a third year would mean parents would be able to buy supplemental services with their Title I subsidies.

Although the law specifically prohibits federally sponsored national testing, a federally controlled curriculum, or any mandatory national teacher test or certification, some grassroots activists fear the new bill takes further steps in those directions, which began in earnest with the 1994 ESEA reauthorization and Goals 2000.

For his part, Bush envisions the test data as a force for grassroots change. Early in the battle for “No Child Left Behind,” he stated:

The greatest benefit of testing–with the power to transform a school or system–is the information it gives to parents. . . . Armed with that information, parents will have the leverage to force reform. . . . But reform also requires options. Monopolies seldom change on their own–no matter how good the intentions of those who lead them. Competition is required to jolt a bureaucracy out of its lethargy.

Principle of Parental Choice

The education bill was the second surprising–albeit modest–federal victory in 2001 for the principle of parental choice in education.

The first came with congressional enactment of the tax bill also championed by Bush. The law expanded tax-advantaged Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) to cover expenses connected with private or public schooling of children in kindergarten through grade 12. Hitherto, ESAs had been restricted to the costs of higher education.

The new law increases the annual limit on contributions to an ESA–sometimes called an education IRA–from $500 to $2,000. They will bear the name Coverdell ESAs in honor of the late Paul Coverdell, the United States Senator from Georgia who worked for federal ESAs for many years.

Bilingual Education

The new ESEA also contains reforms of federal bilingual education programs that embrace the principle of choice. Parents gain the right to remove their child immediately from bilingual education if they conclude the child is not being taught English promptly. States must show they are making significant progress toward improving English fluency or risk losing their federal funds.

The new ESEA eliminates the requirement that at least 75 percent of federal funds be reserved for programs that teach in the students’ non-English native language. Instead, states will receive formula grants they can use as they see fit. (See “English Learners Not Left Behind,” School Reform News, January 2002.)

Reading Instruction

In addition, the revamped ESEA also embraces Reading First, which will help school districts set up research-based–i.e., phonetics-based–instruction in K-3 plus aid in early identification and intervention with children from high-poverty areas who lack reading readiness.

Another reform consolidates several teacher programs to allow local school systems to pursue such promising approaches as alternative teacher certification, tenure reform, merit pay, teacher testing, and aid for teachers to seek professional development.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a public-policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia. His e-mail address is [email protected].

For more information . . .

The complete text of the final Education Reauthorization Bill conference report (HR1)–all 1,184 pages–is available at the House Rules Committee’s Web site at