Congress Practices One Thing, Preaches Another on School Choice

Published October 1, 2003

Over the past three years Congress has had several opportunities to approve legislation that would give low-income families the opportunity to choose where their children attend school. In every case, had lawmakers whose own children were enrolled in private schools voted with school choice advocates to give disadvantaged families the same access, the legislation would have passed.

According to the most recent Heritage Foundation survey, 42 percent of Members of Congress responded they send or have sent at least one child to a private school. In the general population, only about 10 percent of students attend private schools. Heritage Foundation surveys of Congress conducted in 2001 and 2000 yielded similar results.

Of those responding, the percentage of Members of Congress who send their children to private schools is disproportionate to that of the general population:

  • While only 10 percent of U.S. students attend private schools, 41 percent of Representatives and 46 percent of Senators responded that they had sent children to private school;
  • 45 percent of House Ways and Means Committee members and 31 percent of House Education and the Workforce Committee members exercised private school choice;
  • 56 percent of Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee and 47 percent of Senate Finance Committee members exercised private school choice; and
  • 29 percent of Congressional Black Caucus members and 46 percent of Congressional Hispanic Caucus members chose to send at least one child to private school.

Many of the policymakers who exercise choice in their own children’s education have voted to block legislation that would have given other families the same range of options. For example, earlier this year the House considered Amendment 90 to the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (H.R. 1350), a modest proposal by Representative Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina) to give states the flexibility to establish innovative parental choice programs for students with disabilities.

The proposal was defeated by a vote of 240 to 182 on April 30, 2003. If every member of the House who practices school choice had voted to empower families with disabled children, Amendment 90 would have passed 243-179.

The Senate has not voted on parental choice legislation this term.

Parental Choice Curtailed in NCLB

In the 107th Congress, the survey found similar results. In 2001, the House of Representatives and Senate both rejected amendments to the No Child Left Behind Act that would have given scholarships to children in low-performing or dangerous public schools so they could attend better-performing independent schools. All three amendments would have passed if Members had voted in a way consistent with their own practices.

In 2000, the Heritage Foundation survey found all three parental choice proposals introduced that year would have passed if all those who practiced school choice had supported it for less-fortunate families.

Although some Members of Congress continue to oppose legislation that would give disadvantaged and at-risk students the wider range of educational opportunities offered by school choice programs, public support for such programs is growing, particularly among minorities. Moreover, existing programs enjoy a high level of parental satisfaction.

A poll conducted in July 2002 by Zogby International Polling found 76 percent of respondents “strongly” or “somewhat” supported “providing parents with the option of sending their children to the school of their choice–either public, private, or parochial–rather than only to the school to which they are assigned.”

When asked specifically whether they were “in favor of or against allowing poor parents to be given the tax dollars allotted for their child’s education and permitting them to use those dollars in the form of a scholarship to attend a private, public, or parochial school of their choosing,” 63 percent of respondents favored the proposal. Rates of approval were even higher among minority respondents.

Parental Choice for DC?

In the near future, the House of Representatives will have the opportunity to vote on an amendment to the District of Columbia appropriations bill modeled after the committee-passed D.C. Parental Choice Incentive Act introduced by Representative Tom Davis (R-Virginia). The proposal would enable low-income parents in the District of Columbia to enroll their children in private schools through a scholarship program. Under the bill, the maximum scholarship is $7,500, and $15 million is authorized for the program.

If every member of the House of Representatives who practices private school choice votes with supporters of school choice to extend the same access to disadvantaged students in the District of Columbia, the amendment will pass.

  • It will likewise pass in the Senate if those who practice school choice for themselves vote to extend it to other people, too.*

    Since the 2002 Heritage Foundation survey was conducted, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring program, removing the constitutional question from vouchers. Before the first anniversary of the Court’s decision, Colorado Governor Bill Owens signed into law the Colorado Opportunity Contract Pilot Program, which will provide vouchers to low-income students in low-performing school districts. Eleven states have state-funded scholarship programs or tax credits for education expenses or contributions to scholarship funds.

    Krista Kafer is senior policy analyst for education at The Heritage Foundation. Her email address is [email protected].

    For more information …

    The September 2003 Heritage Foundation survey, “How Members of Congress Practice School Choice,” by Krista Kafer and Jonathan Butcher, is available online at

    * It passed 209-208 on September 9.