National Elections Bring School Choice Advocates to the Forefront

Published December 1, 2002

The school choice community will lose two of its Congressional champions when House of Representatives Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) and Rep. Bob Schaffer (R-Colorado) retire at the end of this session.

“The tired arguments against school choice grow less and less relevant every year,” Armey told Congress in July. “Now, in light of the recent Court approval, the time has come for the federal government to step up to the plate and take the lead in ushering the school choice movement into the twenty-first century.”

This summer, Armey, along with Senate Education Committee ranking Republican Judd Gregg (R-New Hampshire), introduced the District of Columbia Student Opportunity Scholarship bill to bring choice to the nation’s capital. The measure is nearly identical to legislation vetoed by then-President Bill Clinton in 1998.

Similarly tireless as a leader for parental choice and meaningful school reform, “Honorable Bob,” as one local newspaper columnist called Schaffer, leaves Congress to honor his pledge to serve only three terms.

This year, Schaffer’s scholarship tax credit bill went farther than any such proposal. Nevertheless–despite undergoing major reconstructive surgery and attracting 47 cosponsors and a statement of support from the Bush administration–the measure never made it out of the Ways and Means Committee. Calling the plan “a means to reduce financial barriers to improving educational opportunities for children” in a September 12 statement, the administration had pledged to work with Congress to overcome budgetary obstacles to implementing the plan.

Meanwhile, Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Michigan) once again earned his reputation as one of the outspoken leaders for parental choice. Hoekstra sponsored a 75 percent tax credit for individuals or corporations contributing to qualified tuition scholarship organizations or to local schools. He believes a tax credit for businesses should be an important priority for the new Congress, and sees it as an important way to bring in new money for schools.

Another school choice stalwart, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), introduced not one but three education tax credit bills.

First-term Congressman Eric Cantor (R-Virginia) made his refundable $1,000 Education Empowerment Tax Credit the first piece of legislation he introduced as a Member of Congress. Over the course of the session, 67 Members signed on as cosponsors. Cantor plans to reintroduce the bill in 2003.

For Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colorado), also a member of the House Education Committee, the two main education priorities for the next Congress are preventing over-identification of special-education students and promoting parental choice in special education. Other choice leaders returning to the House include Rep. Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina) and Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Arizona).

The next Congress also features a range of new advocates for school choice and school reform. Some of these mark the return of familiar faces–like new Senator and former Representative Jim Talent (R-Missouri). A former member of the House Education Committee, Talent once proclaimed about school choice at a hearing, “Unless we’re going to bury our heads in the sand, it just seems to me expecting other kinds of reforms to do any good within the time frame these kids need is just not realistic.”

An American Federation of Teachers statement pointed out that in his four terms in the House, Talent “voted ‘right’ [on teacher union priorities] in only 2 out of 41 votes.” He replaces a teacher union favorite, Democratic Sen. Jean Carnahan.

New Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) is another familiar face. The former Secretary of Education made charter schools a foundation of his campaign.

Two new Representatives with strong parental choice credentials will be Trent Franks (R-Arizona) and Tom Feeney (R-Florida). Franks, a former state representative, strongly supports tuition tax credits, which he says are “easier to pass and easier to uphold” than vouchers.

Feeney gained national exposure as Speaker of Florida’s House of Delegates. His commitment to vouchers and choice is longstanding, and during his campaign he reminded voters that he filed the first full-blown voucher bill in the Florida legislature, in 1990.

Both Senator Gregg and House Education and the Workforce Chairman John Boehner (R-Ohio) plan to continue using their influential positions to champion school choice.

“The drive for equal educational opportunity in America doesn’t end with President Bush’s signing of the No Child Left Behind Act; it begins there,” Boehner said in October. “The momentum behind the parental choice movement has never been stronger.”

Don Soifer is executive vice president of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia. His email address is [email protected].