Feds Propose National School Choice Project

Published September 1, 2006

Several federal legislators joined U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings on July 18 in calling for a $100 million national voucher program for children in failing schools nationwide.

The America’s Opportunity Scholarship for Kids Act is being sponsored in the U.S. House of Representatives by Buck McKeon (R-CA) and Sam Johnson (R-TX) and in the Senate by Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and John Ensign (R-NV). By using federal funds to launch pilot voucher programs in 10 cities nationwide, the legislators hope to replicate the success of existing programs such as those in Milwaukee and Washington, DC.

If passed, the bill would give a chance at a better education to about 28,000 students attending schools that have failed for six years to achieve the “adequate yearly progress” benchmark outlined in the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

“The thing we wake up worrying about every day at the Department of Education is [the goal of achieving] grade level proficiency for every child by 2013-2014,” Spellings told The New York Times for a July 19 article. “Often that will be found in a public school. But when that doesn’t happen, what do we do?”

Restructuring Schools

If it passes, the bill will mark the first time Congress has approved the use of federal funds for private education for anyone other than Hurricane Katrina victims or students in the District of Columbia. But the measure is unlikely to gain traction on Capitol Hill before the November elections.

“It takes a while for ideas like this to seep in and for members to understand it,” explained Nina Rees, a consultant to the Phoenix-based Alliance for School Choice advocacy group and former senior Education Department official.

“Schools undergoing restructuring have failed to raise student achievement for six or more years, so the fact that states and districts are not using the tools under NCLB to truly restructure these schools is frustrating,” Rees said.

Removing Government

Some school choice groups don’t support the bill.

“The federal government has no constitutional authority to be in education at all, even if it’s doing things we like,” said Neal McCluskey, an education analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, DC, explaining why his organization opposes the bill even though it ordinarily supports vouchers and other forms of school choice.

If passed, the bill could subject private K-12 schools to the government “dictating curriculum and insurance coverage,” McCluskey said. “The last thing you want is the federal government getting involved in private schools–the only sector where you can escape from it right now.”

Raising Discourse

Robert Enlow, executive director of the Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation in Indianapolis, said the program’s six-year waiting period–half the years a child spends in primary education–is unacceptable. But he believes the bill’s introduction could yield positive results for school choice in general down the line.

“Education still is a matter best left to states. If this proposed scholarship makes it easier for states to offer parents more choices, that’s a good thing. All the states that passed school choice this year were Democrat,” Enlow said, noting Arizona’s three school choice measures (see stories on pages 1 and 5 of this issue) and Iowa’s new tax credit scholarships.

McCluskey saw one bright spot in the bill.

“It brings to the fore the hypocrisy of a lot of people who traditionally have wanted a big federal role” in education, McCluskey said. “As soon as that role would start to give money to parents instead of to the establishment people, they’re against that–the federal government shouldn’t be involved; how dare they do it. It puts on a national stage how these people are not really interested in children’s education as much as they are in having control over the system that’s supposed to serve the children but really just serves [the established public school interests].”

Karla Dial ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News.