In September, U.S. Sens. Jim DeMint (R-SC) and Barack Obama (D-IL) introduced S. 3995, the Education Opportunity Act, to provide college-level opportunities for disadvantaged high school students. The measure offers a new, reformed method of providing low-income students with the opportunity to take Advanced Placement (AP) classes and other advanced courses.
The DeMint-Obama proposal would give qualifying low-income high school students the opportunity to take classes at a university, community, or technical college. For example, participating students could take AP classes and receive credit that can be used in college.
‘A Step Forward’
School choice advocates hailed the move as a step forward.
“Senator DeMint has proven to be a friend to parental choice in education throughout his tenure in Congress,” said Don Soifer, executive vice president of the Lexington Institute, a free-market think tank in Arlington, Virginia. “He recognizes that if Washington is going to continue to increase its role in public education in this country, finding ways to give more and better choices to poor families in underperforming schools is an important priority.”
The program would essentially extend the opportunities available through the higher education Pell Grant program to high school students to take college-level courses. The Pell Grant program currently provides nearly $12 billion annually to approximately five million higher education students to assist with tuition costs. The DeMint-Obama proposal would make federal funds available to qualifying low-income high school students.
“Our bill would significantly expand college-level opportunities for low-income high school students, and teach these students that success in school means success in life,” DeMint explained. “This legislation will help keep our high school students in school by raising their expectations and showing them they can do college-level work.”
Federal policymakers are looking for ways to give disadvantaged students greater access to AP courses and higher-level instruction. Earlier this year, the Bush administration proposed funding for programs that provide greater access to math and science instruction and AP courses for disadvantaged children, in its American Competitiveness Initiative.
DeMint suggested the Education Opportunity Act would be a cost-effective way of accomplishing the same goal of providing higher education instruction to low-income students.
“While we have expanded low-income students’ access to AP classes, I believe we are missing another vital avenue to increase college-level opportunities for those students,” DeMint said. “Our bill would allow students to take advantage of college-level classes at no extra cost or burden to their high school, while at the same time exposing the student to the hundreds of classes at their local community college.”
Soifer pointed to the importance of the bipartisan support for the measure.
“It is encouraging to see Senator Obama acknowledge that students from poor families often do not see their educational needs met by their neighborhood government high school,” Soifer explained. “Those students deserve more choices and more portability for their public education dollars. S. 3995 would give many of those families an interesting new educational option.
“But a broader choice plan would certainly make more of a difference,” Soifer added.
DeMint said the Education Opportunity Act would be an important step toward greater parental choice in education.
“The more we show low-income students and parents that education choices benefit them directly, the better our chances are of expanding education choices in the future,” DeMint said.
Facing a short calendar for the remainder of the year and the 109th Congress, legislative action on the bill probably will not occur until 2007, even though the bipartisan measure was introduced in September.
“We are unlikely to find time to bring up this legislation as a stand-alone bill this year,” DeMint explained. “However, it’s important we begin the debate over innovative education solutions, and this legislation is one more valuable option to empower students and parents with choices to meet individual student needs.
“I look forward to working with the [Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions] committee next year to make this legislation a reality,” DeMint said.
Dan Lips ([email protected]) is an education policy analyst with The Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC.
For more information …
Summary of S. 3995, http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bill.xpd?tab=summary&bill=s109-3995