Rubio Champions Federal School Choice Bill

Published May 15, 2013

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio has gone on the road to promote a federal tax-credit scholarship bill aimed at helping poor children attend private schools. The program is about “giving parents more choices,” he says.

“This bill will incentivize investment in students and empower parents and K-12 students by allowing more educational opportunities, especially in low-income households that would otherwise not be able to afford it. It’s the kind of incentive that will help improve education in America and prepare our children for the jobs of tomorrow, without additional burdens on the American taxpayer,” Rubio said in a statement.

The Florida senator’s bill—known as the Educational Opportunities Act, or Senate Bill 297—would expand school choice by giving federal tax credits to businesses and individuals who donate to a nonprofit Scholarship Granting Organization (SGO).

The maximum allowable credit for a corporation would be $100,000. Depending on an individual’s filing status, their maximum credit would be $4,500.

To receive a scholarship from an SGO to a private school parents choose, a student must be enrolled in an elementary or secondary school that charges tuition and be part of a household whose annual income does not exceed 250 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. That equals $67,525.00 annually for a family of five. SGOs would be mandated to publish test results and graduation rates for all participating students.

Fourteen similar tax-credit scholarship programs exist in states, according to the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court decided they are constitutional.

Reality Check
Could such an innovative federal school choice bill pass a divided Congress and a president who has publicly stood against private school choice while sending his daughters to private school?

Rubio’s staff declined to directly answer that query from School Reform News. Instead, spokeswoman Brooke Sammon pointed SRN to a recent Rubio interview in which he mentions the philosophical and political bond with Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, who was a driving force behind passing a statewide voucher program in the Sunshine State. Bush is a friend and mentor of Rubio.

Sammon also noted a diverse group of educational reform heavyweights who have praised the legislation, including Julio Fuentes, president of the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options.

“Rubio’s bill would move the country a long way towards leveling the playing field for Hispanic students and families,” Fuentes said.

A May 2012 poll found that 69 percent of Latinos support vouchers, and that they consider education more important than immigration. Seventy-three percent of African Americans support vouchers for low-income families, and 53 percent support vouchers for everyone, according to the most recent Harvard/Education Next poll.

“We applaud [Rubio] for taking this bold step, and we are hopeful that our nation’s elected officials will see this bill as an opportunity to help our most vulnerable children and not allow partisan politics or ideologies to prohibit this bill from moving forward,” said Kenneth Campbell, president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options.

Feds vs. States
It’s not clear how federal tax-credit scholarships would impact states that already have such programs, said Jon East, a vice-president of Florida SGO Step Up For Students.

“The bill so far does not describe how the federal scholarship would work in states that, like Florida, have their own scholarships for low-income students,” he said. “One possibility might be that the federal scholarship could augment the state scholarship, because state scholarships seldom cover the full cost of tuition for these low-income families.”

Rubio proclaimed the merits of the Educational Opportunities Act in April at the Florida College Academy, a pre-kindergarten through grade nine religious school. The school has 37 tax-credit scholarship students, according to Florida education blog redefinED.

East is optimistic about Rubio’s effort: “We certainly see the Educational Opportunities Act as a positive step forward for children in all states who struggle academically and might benefit from another learning option.”

S. 297 has been referred to the Senate Finance Committee.


Image by Gage Skidmore